Not all revision techniques are equal. Some are very effective while others make little impact. One of the most effective revision methods is retrieval practice, also known as the testing effect.
Retrieval practice refers to any activity that forces you to generate an answer to a question. It has consistently been proven to help students improve retention and recall (and subsequently exam performance). So, how can we put this into practice to harness the testing effect?
Past papers are one of the most useful and accessible methods of retrieval practice. They are particularly useful as they are specific to the exams you will be taking, rather than just general test questions. By doing past papers – most of which are free online or available through your teacher – you can use retrieval practice with content that is directly relevant to your studies and exams.
Multiple choice tests
Multiple choice tests can be particularly useful if you are at an earlier stage of revision, as you don’t need to know the answer instinctively; you just need to be able to recognise the correct answer from a set of options. This is still an effective method of retrieval practice as you are responding to a question, but you can select the right answer rather than create it from scratch. Multiple choice tests may be useful before you use past papers.
Essay answers may well be included in your past papers, but they are a useful method of retrieval practice independently too. This is because they require you to synthesise multiple pieces of information into fluent prose and likely perform some analysis, which will improve retention more than merely recalling isolated facts. Research has shown that the more you do with information, the more likely you are to recall it.
Answering a question aloud
Answering a spoken question is a useful form of retrieval practice as replying aloud makes you think about the information differently and make quick connections under pressure. Other research has found that reading things aloud is more beneficial than in silence, as it prompts a range of senses and actions.
Testing yourself with flashcards
Flashcards you’ve made yourself are great because all the questions are directly relevant to your exam rather than being generic questions about the topic. You know what you need to be tested on the most, so you can tailor the questions to your weak spots while using retrieval practice.
Having someone ask you questions
One of the most effective methods of learning is teaching others. This approach combines teaching others with answering questions, so is doubly effective for helping you learn. It also allows you to involve others in your learning, which is useful as having a supportive group around you is important for doing well at school. Answering questions from someone lets you discover how well you understand the material, as you’ll need to explain it to them and they can ask follow-up questions to test your knowledge even further.
Retrieval practice is one of the most effective ways to revise. By answering questions rather than merely reading or highlighting information, you’re putting yourself in the best position possible to succeed and remember as much of your subjects as possible. Past papers, essays, multiple choice tests and flashcards are a great way of doing it.
For even more information on how to master study skills, we have a page all about The Best Ways to Revise. Here you can find loads more tips, links and research to help you succeed.