As we enter exam season, Dr Egan, our Assistant Head responsible for Research & Innovation, offers some advice on how best to study and revise.
This might seem like an obvious one but it is worth repeating – cramming really does not work. Research shows that people who cram forget most of what they have tried to learn within a matter of hours. In order to learn material thoroughly, it is necessary to start a revision programme well in advance and regularly revisit and review that material. Each time you return to the material, you not only refresh but also strengthen your memory of it.
The learner needs to actively engage with the material they want to learn. Reading and then re-reading a textbook or a set of notes is not an effective way to revise. When you re-read something, it seems familiar but this familiarity is an illusion, not an indication that you have learnt the material in question. What you need to do is check to see if the knowledge and information you have read is really in your brain. There are numerous ways to do this. Here are just a few: repeat what you have learnt aloud, only using a prompt if you get stuck; make a mind map or other diagram of the material; work through practice questions or past papers; make flashcards with a key word on the front and important information on the back, so that you can use them to test yourself.
Using a variety of revision techniques will help prevent boredom and maintain motivation. This is a more surprising one: revising in different locations has proven benefits. Educational research by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork has shown that your ability to recall information in an examination can be enhanced if you have studied that material in at least two different locations. Otherwise, your brain seems to link the material too closely to one place, making it harder to recall in a third place (the examination hall). I would strongly encourage girls to come into school during their study leave. Not only do we provide a different venue in which to study but also easy access to teachers, who are happy to answer queries, mark practice questions, and give any other additional support required.
Revision timetables are useful things but only if they are realistic. Plan in time off, including whole days off. Find time for a sporting activity or a walk or another hobby. Never eat and work at the same time. Meals should be times when you relax. Do not set aside entire days for a single subject. The reasons for this are similar to the reasons why you should not cram. If you work continually on the same thing, you will acquire a sense of familiarity with it which you might mistake for learning but which is not learning in the true sense of the word. Switching between subjects during a working day, forces the learner to make more use of their powers of recall. If you study one subject, then another, then a third, then return to the first thing, you have to recall that first thing back to mind again, which helps transfer the information to your long term memory.
Perhaps the best news from the research is that there is nothing wrong with incentives, as long as they are judiciously used. Continual small rewards work less well as motivation to complete a task than one big reward at the end. It can, however, be a good idea for someone else to be doling out the treat, because people in charge of their own rewards are prone to succumb to temptation too early.
Finally, getting enough sleep is crucial; the more tired you are, the more likely you are to give into distractions, such as checking your phone or watching something on Netflix. A second reason to prioritise a good night’s sleep is that sleep helps to consolidate our memories. There is even research suggesting that an hour of sleep shortly before an examination is more efficacious than an hour of revision.
Your daughter will be provided with a fantastic range of subject-specific revision resources by her teachers, including practice questions, past examination papers and mark-schemes. She should make the most of these, not least because they will help her tackle the most challenging topics successfully. The overall message here for those revising, however, it is to set manageable goals, keep your study programme varied and tend to your health and well-being. And, of course, please ask for help if you need it.
Dr Maria Egan is Head of Politics, Teacher of History and Assistant Head of Research & Innovation at South Hampstead. In advance of the summer exams at Senior School, all pupils are issued with in-house revision guidance, outlining subject-specific information as well as answers to lots of frequently asked questions – both academic and pastoral – distilling a wealth of research: Is it a good idea to listen to music while revising? What is wrong with cramming? How can I relax? Is it better to handwrite or type up revision notes? How should I plan my timetable? Download Dr Egan’s tips and advice here.