Whether you’re taking in-person or online exams, your memory has a big part to play in your success. Here are six research-informed ways to revise smarter this exam season.
1. Harness the testing effect
When it comes to revision, it’s effort that gets results – providing that effort is of the right kind.
In their book Make It Stick, Brown, Roediger and McDaniel stress the importance of retrieval – actively and repeatedly testing ourselves. The more times we retrieve a piece of information from memory, the stronger the neural pathway becomes and the more likely we are to hold on to that information until exam day and beyond.
Re-reading, highlighting and copying lecture notes will only get you so far. Your time will be better spent doing timed practice with past papers, making flashcards, reducing your notes to trigger words and actively recalling what you’ve learnt. Retrieval lends itself well to group study, too, so why not get together with some coursemates and test each other?
2. Space it out and mix it up
The more intensively you study a single topic the better, right? Well, apparently not. Two more important concepts discussed in Make It Stick are ‘spaced practice’ and ‘interleaving’.
Spaced practice involves studying a topic for a limited amount of time and returning to it at intervals. Interleaved practice means alternating two or more topics – and for university exams, it’s going to be more than two!
You might worry about forgetting what you’ve learnt between study sessions, but that’s the point. It’s the effort of retrieving information just as it’s starting to fade that strengthens those neural connections and helps secure it in your memory for the long term.
3. Break it down into chunks
Try memorising the following sequence:
If you treat it as a string of 20 unconnected characters, it’s a daunting task.
But it becomes much easier when you group the characters into six meaningful chunks:
321 NASA 789 BBC 444 ROFL
You may be familiar with Miller’s (1956) concept of the ‘Magic number seven (plus or minus two)’ – the idea that our working memory capacity is limited to between five and nine ‘chunks’ of information. While debates about this are ongoing, the basic principle is very useful for revision: to memorise complex information, look for patterns and break it down into meaningful units.
4. Expand and elaborate
All learning starts with what we already know, and the more ways we can connect a concept to our existing knowledge and experience, the better established it becomes in our memory.
Don’t think of revision as learning isolated ‘facts’. Instead, make links between concepts, think of examples, applications and analogies, generate critical questions (‘How?’ ‘Why?’ ‘So what?’), create stories, songs and mnemonics, draw pictures and mind maps … and the list goes on.
Elaboration isn’t just a good way of creating new memory pathways; it’s also crucial preparation for producing critical exam answers and securing those top grades. It makes revision more creative and enjoyable, too.
5. Create a ‘mind palace’
A favourite technique of magicians and classical orators, this is also known as the ‘method of loci’.
First, you visualise a familiar place (for instance, the Student’s Union) or route (say, the U1 bus journey up Bathwick Hill). Then you connect various points in the place or along the route with specific pieces of information.
Picture that place or route during the exam and you should find that the information comes readily to mind as well.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this one – and it’s an easy win!
As Dr Matthew Walker explains in Why We Sleep, when our brain absorbs new information, this is stored temporarily in the hippocampus. But the hippocampus can only store so much before its capacity is maxed out. As we sleep, information is transferred to long-term storage in the cortex. When we wake up, the hippocampus is cleared out and ready to be filled back up again!
Finding out what makes your learning stick is a fascinating process and useful not just during exam season but throughout your life. So, this revision period, experiment with some different techniques and see what works!
Got a useful revision tip to share? Post a comment below.
Brown, C., Roediger, H. and McDaniel, M., 2014. Make it stick. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.
Doyle, T. and Zakrajsek, T., 2019. The new science of learning: how to learn in harmony with your brain. 2nd ed. Sterling, Va.: Stylus.
Walker, M., 2017. Why we sleep. London: Allen Lane/Penguin Random House.