Looming on the horizon this month is the Easter holidays. We say “looming” because although holidays are usually a very good thing, if you’re in Years 11, 12 or 13 they probably also mean that it’s time to get down to some revision for your summer exams.

When the first big period of revision time comes up, it often leads to people discussing revision techniques. A quick google of the term revision techniques will bring up all sorts of tips and tricks that will supposedly make your revision that much more effective. But how can you be sure they work?

Last year a group of American scientists published a research paper suggesting that, in fact, many revision techniques that conventional wisdom says are must-dos are in fact at best ineffective and at worst counter-productive.

The research paper on revision techniques makes interesting (though challenging) reading. We shan’t expect you to work your way through its fifty-odd pages, especially not at a time when you’ve got real revision to be doing. But in a nutshell, the research examined ten different revision techniques (through tests on real students) and concluded that eight of them were not worthy of the hype that surrounds them.

One of the biggest surprises of the study was that the use of highlighters apparently does little to improve students’ performance, as it makes them focus too narrowly on the point they are highlighting without looking at the bigger picture. Mnemonics (Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain etc.) were also seen to be not particularly good revision tools. In many cases the problem wasn’t so much that the technique didn’t help a student retain a specific piece of information that they could then use in their exam, but rather that it didn’t help them truly learn and understand their subject–something that is crucial if you are to get the top marks.

The only two revision techniques that came out unscathed from the study were regular self-testing and “distributed practice”–that is, lots of short study sessions spread out over time rather than mammoth cramming sessions.

So, while we certainly wouldn’t advise you to abandon all other revision techniques or not try out any other ones–ultimately an effective revision technique is the one that works for you personally, no matter how unconventional it is–if you’re looking to develop just a couple of revision techniques for these Easter holidays then the science is clear: test yourself on what you’ve revised frequently, and revise in lots of short bursts over a longer period of time.

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