Hi everyone! It’s the end of the semester suddenly – not sure when that happened – but that means we’re approaching one of the most stressful periods in the semester: exam time. Exams will be run a little bit differently this year in order to comply with social distancing. You might be face to face, or you might be online. Check the Flinders exam information page and your topic exam info to make sure you know where you’re supposed to be and when!
To start off with, I’m going to go back to basics and point you to one of my very first vlogs, Planning to Online. This video has some tips for setting up your study space, setting daily anchor points, and organising yourself and your time. The rules are pretty much the same for exam revision, so check that out if you haven’t already.
Otherwise, let’s get straight into the best evidence-based revision techniques. But first, in order to understand why these techniques work so well, I want to share with you just a little bit about how our brains process and store information.
Encoding Information (Or How Your Brain Works)
Very basically, our memories are reconstructive. Our brain isn’t like a library where information is shelved until we need it. Every time we retrieve a memory, we alter it, refine it, and strengthen it. This can be both good and bad: if we misattribute information, we can confuse or reinforce the wrong stuff. However, if we recall information correctly, or correct mistakes in our memories after we recall them, we strengthen them.
For that correct recall to happen – which is what we need in an exam – that information must go from our short-term memory at the point of learning, into our long-term memory. For this to happen, information must be encoded in a deep or meaningful way.
When we learn something new, specific groups of neurons fire as a response to incoming information. Some of these patterns are new, and some represent things we already know. New information is attached to old information through new pathways and patterns – this is why we remember things better when they’re attached to existing knowledge.
In order to recall information-n, we have to reactivate those same patterns and pathways that were active during learning. When we do this, we consolidate those memories: the patterns are strengthened, and that memory becomes easier and easier to access.
Think about when you take a short cut in a park. Over time, the grass becomes flatter and it starts to resemble a path until, eventually, you’ve created a new path altogether. Every time you use it, that path is easier and easier to walk down. That’s what we do when we revise well. We create new paths that allow us to access information in our brains. If we study really well, and use a mixture of techniques, we create multiple paths to that same information.
Spaced practice is, basically, the opposite of cramming. When we cram, we might be able to regurgitate some information in the short term, but it won’t last beyond the exam.
Our brains make stronger connections and create better long-term memories when learning events, or study sessions, are spaced out rather than massed in quick succession. We need to give our brains time to develop new neural pathways, particularly when we’re dealing with complex analytical information.
Think about it: would you feel more confident crossing a bridge that was built in one night or crossing a bridge that was built bit by bit over time? Our brains are doing just that: they’re building networks, just like roads or bridges, between bits of information and they need time to do it properly.
While this does mean you need to be a bit more organised and start studying earlier, it will save you time overall. Studies show that the same level of memorisation can be achieved in shorter total time when that time is spaced out. So, you can learn the same amount in three one-hour blocks spread over a week than you will in a single three, four- or even five-hour block.
Create a Revision Timetable
When planning your revision, try to start as early as you can. In a perfect world, this means spending an hour or two revising content throughout the whole semester, but realistically, this might mean setting aside blocks of 2-3 hours every one or two days for a few weeks before the exam.
Make a timetable that sets out when you’re going to study and for how long. Keep each study session to a couple of hours and give it a specific topic with a clear aim. Don’t forget to schedule in breaks and down-time. Rest, exercise, and healthy food are a really important part of how our brains encode and consolidate information, not to mention the benefits to your mental health!
Interleaving is the practice of switching between topics as we study. Rather than studying one concept in a session, you might take two similar but not exactly the same ideas and study them in varying order. It works best if you interleave two similar study areas so you can make links between ideas and problem-solving strategies, which will strengthen your understanding of each. This technique works well with spaced practice as it allows us to break up our study sessions into more discrete but related topics that can be returned to over time.
Plan to forget
The thing that makes spaced practice really work is that it gives our brains time to forget. Yes, I know this seems counter-intuitive, but the harder our brains have to work to retrieve that information in future study sessions, the more the memory is enforced.
This is why spacing is especially effective when combined with active recall techniques, or retrieval practice. Which brings me to …
Active Recall/Retrieval Practice
Retrieval practice is basically the opposite of passive review, or when we simply read over our notes or textbooks or re-watch a lecture and expect that we’ll be able to remember it all in an exam. Spoiler alert, guys: this doesn’t work very well!
Active recall, or retrieval practice, is all about the process of bringing information from our memories into our minds. This has to do with the generation effect, which basically suggests that we remember information better if it is generated in our own minds rather than being provided to us. Essentially, this means we remember better when we learn actively rather than passively.
Active recall is the most effective method for creating long-term memory. There are many theories as to why this is the case; largely it’s to do with the fact that it increases our cognitive effort and conceptual processes. But importantly, studies show that it is super effective.
There are quite a few techniques that we can employ to make sure we incorporate active recall into our revision:
Start with a practice test before you study. This will assess your ability to retrieve information and show you the areas that need the most attention.
You’re also more likely to remember something if you get it wrong and are corrected, especially if you’re confident about the answer. This is due to the hypercorrection effect. Basically, our brains don’t want to be embarrassed, so they work harder to retain corrected information. To do this well:
- Test yourself early and often by accessing past exams or tests online
- Follow up on mistakes by finding the correct answer and adding these to your revision strategy
- Make your own quiz out of your lecture notes or textbook. Creating questions forces you to input and output information in your own words, which helps you understand it more deeply
Another way to test your active recall is to create flashcards. Making them yourself is much more effective than using pre-made ones because they force you to intake the information and output it into your own words or diagrams.
- Write a question on one side with the answer on another
- Add images to the words to help create stronger associations. This is called dual coding, which I’ll talk more about it a moment.
- Break complex concepts into multiple questions. This avoids the illusion of competence, which is when you remember parts of an answer, but not the whole
- Say your answers out loud when you study your flashcards. This works especially well if you study with a partner
- Study your flashcards in both directions rather than treating them as a question and answer. This will help you create the correct connections between the two pieces of information, so it doesn’t matter how an exam question is constructed.
Make yourself a cheat sheet even if you’re not allowed to take one into the exam. Cheat sheets are a really effective way of processing information because:
- They force you to summarise and reduce information to its most essential elements
- They make you think about what will be included in the exam
- They can be used for practice tests during revision
- Just like creating flashcards, inputting and outputting information forces you to process it at a deeper level, which reinforces memory
Study to Teach
My next tip is to study as though you are going to teach the material, not be tested on it. Teaching forces you to summarise and paraphrase complex topics, which means you’re engaging in important synthesising and consolidation processes.
This basically makes use of a technique called elaboration, which is the process of strengthening our understating of something by adding information to it. It involves describing, connecting, and organising ideas and thinking about things on a deeper level.
You can do this alone or with a study group. There are a couple of key techniques that we can use to help us study as though we’re going to teach:
Interrogation involves asking questions about how and why things work and then producing answers to those questions.
- Explain out loud steps you are taking to solve a problem
- Describe connections between two concepts
- Ask questions about the process, mechanics, or theory behind an idea
- In a study group, split up key concepts to learn and then teach to the rest of the group
Dual coding is about combining verbal and visual materials together. We process verbal and visual information through separate channels, so dual coding gives us two pathways to remember that information later on.
- Go through your textbooks and lecture slides and find visuals that are used alongside words. Ask yourself and your peers how the visuals represent what is described in the text
- Create diagrams, images, maps or images to describe processes and explain them to yourself or your study group
- Describe images or diagrams in your own words, either in writing or out loud to your peers
Context recall techniques
Context-dependent memory is the phenomenon whereby we recall information better when it is retrieved in the same context in which it was learned. Basically, our brains make associations between what we’re learning and the conditions in which we’re learning it. This context might be physical, like the room we’re in, or emotional or psychological, like whether we feel stressed or motivated when we study. This all has to do with the way our brains encode information and create associations between images, words, and ideas.
Recreate exam conditions
- In terms of revision, this means that if you can create similar conditions between the space and context in which you revise and the conditions of the exam room, the more likely your brain is to make associations and recall information better.
- This might mean studying with your papers and pens laid out on your desk the way they might be in the exam room, setting a timer for yourself when you do a practice test, or studying with scribble paper or a cheat sheet beside you
Visualise your study space
- Some researchers also suggest visualising the space you’ve been studying in when you first sit down in the exam room. This involves creating a mental image from environmental cues where you studied, such as items from the room, or its spatial layout (Smith, 1982).
- If you consciously pay attention to elements of the environment during the encoding phase (when you’re learning) you’re also likely to create stronger associations that will lead to better recall when you visualise your study space in the exam room (Chu et al. 2003).
- Say you first learned a concept during a lecture, visualise yourself watching that lecture: were you at home watching a recording on your laptop? What did the recording look like? Or, if you learned that information during a study session, where were you revising? Were you studying at the library, or at home at your desk?
Exam day strategies
- Remember your equipment. What are you allowed? Eg. Pencil, calculator, dictionary? Do you need to bring a clear plastic bag to put them in? Don’t forget your student ID!
- Use reading time effectively. Go through the exam and note the number of questions and estimate how long you think they’ll take you. What do you feel most confident with? What information do you need to remember immediately? Try a brain dump on your scrap paper.
- Read the questions properly. It’s easy to rush and miss important key words or instructions. Slow down and underline task words and content words.
- If it’s a multiple-choice question, try answering in your head before you read the answers.
- If it’s a long answer or essay question, sketch out your argument in dot points on your scrap paper before you begin writing. Spend more time constructing your introduction and topic sentences than the paragraphs, as this will give your examiner a clear idea of the structure and logic of your argument.
- If you have an open book exam, download the chapters you may need. Many e-books have limited access, so only a few students can open them at a time. If you pre-download them, you won’t have that problem. The library have some guides here and here!
- Keep calm! Take a breath, sip some water. If you have to, move on to the next question 😉
That’s it for this week. Next time, Dr Gareth’s going to take us through some more brain hacks to help get you through end of semester madness. He’ll show us how to increase our focus and tame our brains to help us study for those exams and major assignments.
Until then, make sure you check out the Flinders’ Exam Information Page
Flinders Exam Information: https://students.flinders.edu.au/my-course/exams-assess-results/general-exam-information
Health, Counselling and Wellbeing Blog, Preparing for Exams Series: https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2019/10/28/preparing-for-exams-the-series/
Health, Counselling and Wellbeing’s Evidence Based Study and Exam Tips document: https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2020/03/10/the-study-and-exam-preparation-strategies-that-successful-students-use/
Library E-Book Chapter Download Guide: https://proquest.libguides.com/ebookcentral/chapterdownload
Easy Access Study Strategy Resources
The Learning Scientists’ Six Strategies for Effective Learning: https://www.learningscientists.org/videos
Thomas Frank’s Earning A’s: Improving Test and Exam Grades Playlist https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLx65qkgCWNJIgq1Mj0rtsthmpqDGFL8Yn
AsapSCIENCE: The Only 2 Study Hacks Everyone Should Know https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_B6VADhY84
Agarwal, P. K., Roediger, H. L., McDaniel, M. A., & McDermott, K. B. (2013). How to use retrieval practice to improve learning. Saint Louis, MO: Washington University in St. Louis.
Bertsch, S., Pesta, B. J., Wiscott, R., & McDaniel, M. A. (2007). The generation effect: A meta-analytic review. Memory & cognition, 35(2), 201-210.
Carpenter, S. K., & Agarwal, P. K. (2019). How to use spaced retrieval practice to boost learning. Saint Louis, MO: Washington University in St. Louis.
Chu, S., Handley, V., & Cooper, S. R. (2003). Eliminating context-dependent forgetting: Changing contexts can be as effective as reinstating them. The Psychological Record, 53(4), 549-559.
Eich, T. S., Stern, Y., & Metcalfe, J. (2013). The hypercorrection effect in younger and older adults. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 20(5), 511-521.
Smith, S. M. (1982). Enhancement of recall using multiple environmental contexts during learning. Memory & Cognition, 10(5), 405-412.
Smith, S. M. (1984). A comparison of two techniques for reducing context-dependent forgetting. Memory & Cognition, 12(5), 477-482.
Vlach, H. A., & Sandhofer, C. M. (2012). Distributing learning over time: The spacing effect in children’s acquisition and generalization of science concepts. Child development, 83(4), 1137-1144.
Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., & Caviglioli, O. (2018). Understanding how we learn: A visual guide. Routledge.