As essential as any textbook or teacher, using the best revision techniques will save time and boost productivity. During my A Levels, studying psychology, I picked up a few tips that helped me turn time in the library into A*s on results day.
#1. Eliminate Distractions
We are used to reading headlines reporting that millennials check their phones 150 times a day, or that the average brit unlocks their phone 10,000 times a year but did you know how long it takes to get back to what you were doing after each distraction?
Gloria Mark has found that it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after a single interruption. A further lab study by Alessandro Acquisti found that distractions whilst revising led to participants answering 20% less questions correctly than members of the control group – that’s the difference between an A* and a B, or a B and a D.
Fortunately, there are lots of simple adjustments you can make to minimise interruptions: find a quiet place to study, leave your phone at home, turn off alerts on your emails and use Google Chrome’s ‘StayFocusd’ (DN: not sponsored by Google!) to lock yourself out of tempting websites for discrete portions of time.
No matter how absorbed you might be in your Shakespeare, research shows that taking a break can help boost memory and attention. Your brain is a muscle, and just like weight training at the gym – if you’re pushing yourself hard enough, you need recovery time. So stop what you are doing and relax.
The tricky part is to work out how frequently you should break. For me, the Pomodoro technique works well – 25mins of studying followed by a five minute break, and then a longer 15min break after four cycles.
What you do in your breaks is also worth a mention – getting up and moving your body helps to get your blood flowing and oxygen to your brain. In short, a pace around the block will help to restore your focus and make you to feel more alert. If that wasn’t enough of an incentive, recent research by Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014) has found that we are much more creative when we are walking around compared to when we are sitting still.
#3. Don’t just revise, but re-call:
The term revision is misleading – countless studies (Carrier and Pashler, 1992; Agarwal et al, 2010) have found that simply looking at your notes won’t help. In fact, rereading and highlighting were found to be two of the worst strategies for memorising information (Dunlosky et al, 2013).
A much more effective way to deepen your understanding and learn concepts is through ‘doing’. So next time you are sitting down to your work, keep your learning active: have a go at past papers or testing yourself at the end of a day. This will produce better results than many other forms of studying and get your brain used to locating and retrieving the relevant piece of information.
#4. Teach Someone
Teaching as a form of studying is not a new idea, the Roman philosopher Seneca famously said “While we teach, we learn”. Scientists have now recognised the evidence (Nestojko, 2014; that supports this tactic in what has been dubbed “the protégé effect”. The benefits of this approach have been shown in many different research experiments.
In one particular study, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, a “cascading mentoring program” engaged college undergraduates to teach computer science to high school students, who in turn instruct middle school students on the topic. Participants who were expected to teach produced more complete and better-organized free recall of the passage and, in general, correctly answered more questions about the passage than did participants expecting a test, particularly questions covering main points.
So after you have mastered the basics, try teaching the material to a peer, your younger sibling or anyone who will listen!