How to REALLY revise for exams (re-reading vs. re-remembering)

Updated: May 24, 2019

Essential exam revision advice: why you should be doing less re-reading and more re-remembering!

You know how to revise for exams, right?


But here’s the thing:


You spend hours studying, only to find a week or two later, you can barely remember anything you learned!


If that sounds like you, you’re almost certainly not using the best revision techniques.


You might have been told that you need to find a way to learn that “works for you”. The trouble is, science has proved that our own intuitions about “what’s working” are really bad! So most students end up spending most of the time on revision techniques that feel good, but aren’t really making much of a lasting impact on how well they know their course.


In this article, we’ll explain how not to revise for exams, and show how you should be revising instead, to make sure you’re getting top grades this summer!


How to learn: the experiment


It’s 2006.


Two of the world’s leading memory researchers, Henry Roediger and Jeff Karpicke, are in pickle.

They know from previous research that practising remembering information – “practice testing” – is an incredibly powerful way to learn, leading to massive and long-lasting memory improvements vs just re-reading, highlighting, note-taking or summarising.


“Practice testing” just means any learning technique where you’re trying to remember information: using flashcards, doing practice questions, or just writing down everything you can remember about a topic from memory on a blank sheet of paper. All really powerful ways to revise for exams – I’ve summarised some of my favourite ways to study with practice testing over on my learning and study techniques blog if you want to learn some of the specific strategies.


Yet when they looked at their own students in the University memory classes they taught, Henry and Jeff saw students failing to use these best revision techniques, and falling back on simply re-reading or making notes. These were students that should have known full well how to revise for their exams – they were studying memory psychology at University! – but even these clued-up students weren’t using the “practice testing” learning techniques their course was telling them were the most powerful.


Why not?


To find out what was going on, they ran an ingenious study [paywall for full text] to figure out what was going on.


The researchers took two groups of students and gave them each a passage of information to learn (fun facts about the sun or sea otters, apparently!):


  • The first group – which we’ll call “The Re-Readers” – were simply asked to re-read the passage in four separate study sessions, and nothing more


  • The second group – “The Testers” – also got to four chances to study the information, lasting the same amount of time, but they were only allowed to read the passage in the first of the four sessions. They never saw the information again after this first session. For the remaining three sessions, the students were asked to spend time writing down everything they could remember about the passage from memory.


The researchers told the two groups there would be a test on the material they had learned, and asked each group to predict how well they would do on the test. The predictions were curious:


· The Re-Readers thought they would do great on the test – they were feeling pretty comfortable with the material having read it through so many times.


· The Testers thought they wouldn’t do so well – trying to write down what they’d learned from memory showed up all the gaps in what they could remember, so their confidence was down.


But this is where things get so fascinating:


When the researchers brought the students back a week later to test them on how much they could remember about the sun or sea otters, the results were completely the opposite way round compared to what the students had predicted!


  • The Re-Readers had forgotten much of what they’d learned – and did much worse on the test than they thought they had predicted.


  • The Testers were surprised at how much they could remember – and not only did better on the test than they had predicted, but handily outperformed the Re-Readers!


Here’s what the data showed – note how well the Testers did in “Actual performance”, compared to the Re-Readers:


The graph shows how to learn better – a strategy of learning by practising remembering the information leads to better test performance

So what does all this mean for how to revise for exams?


It’s fine to start off your revision process with a bit of re-reading – it’s a nice way to re-familiarise yourself with your courses. The danger is spending too long re-reading – and highlighting, underlining, taking notes and summarising isn’t much better (here’s the proof if you’re feeling really nerdy).


These methods all feel good because the information starts to feel “fluent” – that feeling of “ah yeah, I know this stuff”!


But don’t be seduced – that feeling can easily lead you astray. There’s a big difference between that feeling of familiarity and actually being able to reproduce the information from memory on exam day.


You want to move on to the best revision techniques as soon as possible, in particular, practising testing yourself on what you know. The very act of pulling information out of your memory – especially if it feels hard to remember – is what is really going to lock the knowledge of your course away in your memory so it’s there when you need it the exam.


Studying using practice testing feels hard. And it is – it definitely takes more effort to study by trying to remember things, rather than just reading and note-taking – but trust the science and give it a go. Most students that switch over feel the difference almost immediately – suddenly, information starts to “stick” much faster, and you no longer forget what you’ve studied straight away!


So do yourself (and your grades!) a favour, and make sure you’re revising efficiently by practice testing this year.


Here’s to awesome results in your exams!


Blog Post Crafted by William

William is a long-standing member of the Titanium Tutors family, and taught students in a range of subjects for many years alongside his “day job” as a strategy consultant.


More recently, he has taken his passion for learning science and study psychology full-time, and now works as a revision and study skills coach and advisor.


He writes a popular blog, ExamStudyExpert.com, advising students on how they can use better learning techniques and study strategies to boost their grades.

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