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The best revision techniques: Active recall.

We’re continuing with our series all about how to revise effectively and smash your summer 2021 exams and today, we’ll be looking at retrieval practice or active recall and how we can use this to become more effective learners.

You’re probably wondering: ‘How can ‘reflecting’ help me prepare for exams better?’ Well, stick with me as we discuss reflection and calibration today. If you haven’t seen the rest of our series on how to revise effectively for summer 2021 exams then do have a …

What is active recall or retrieval practice?

Retrieval practice means recalling information from memory i.e testing yourself. One of the reasons why this is such an effective way to revise is because it makes our brains constantly have to retrieve information (which is what we do in exams) and it helps us clarify which parts of the subject or topic we’ve mastered well and which parts need more work.

What are some practical ways to implement this into your revision?

  1. Turn passive reading into active revision by asking yourself questions. If you’re reading a textbook chapter for example, pause from time to time and review the information you’ve just read. ‘What are the key points being made here?’ ‘Do I understand this concept?’ ‘Which of these ideas have I never heard before?’ ‘Is some of this information familiar to me?’ Asking yourself such questions while reading means that you interact with the material a lot more as opposed to simply reading it passively.
  2. Use flashcards! The best way to use flashcards is to make them a resource you can easily test yourself from. For example, let’s say ‘Sara’ wants to revise ‘Sonnet 29’ in her GCSE Poetry Anthology. At the moment, she has all of the key points, themes and structure points in the poem written on two sides of a flashcard. Does this method allow Sara to easily revise from this flashcard? Not quite. The first thing Sara should bear in mind is that flashcards are for smaller, bitesize chunks of information. Secondly, a more effective way to use these flashcards would be to have a question on one side e.g. ‘What poetic structure is Sonnet 29 written in and what is the effect of this?’ and the answer on the other side. Sara could then do the same, making flashcards to quiz herself on the main message of the poem and the key themes covered. When writing the questions on one side of the flashcard, try to keep them as specific and simple as possible and remember to put everything in your own words if you can, this makes it a lot easier to remember!
  3. Spaced repetition. If you’ve ever wondered why people say that cramming isn’t the most efficient way to learn, it’s because it doesn’t help you remember information in the long-term, spaced repetition does. Going back to Sara’s flashcards on Sonnet 29, she has now written three flashcards which are simple and can easily help her revise and test herself. The next stage would be for Sara to periodically test herself using these flashcards. She might do this a day after she’s made the flashcards, then a week after, then 2-3 weeks after, a month after and 3-6 months after. Now, you might be thinking: ‘that’s a lot of time spent going over the same set of flashcards!’ It is, but this is the essence of revision: to re-visit information and with spaced repetition, we repeat the information with chunks of time in between. If by the third week of going over these flashcards, Sara notices that she’s mastered the flashcard on key themes but is still having a bit of trouble with the other two, she can move this flashcard into a separate pile which she’ll go over less often than the two she still needs to learn.
  4. Review your learning. Like we discussed in the previous point, you might find that there’s one area of the topic you’re still having difficulty remembering after a month- it might be time to try a different method of learning: watch a video, ask someone for help or look at a past sample answer that uses the same piece of information.
  5. Vary your techniques. Spaced repetition doesn’t have to be boring- the first time Sara goes over those flashcards, she might simply do a Q&A session. The next time, she might ask a friend to ask her the questions or try explaining the key points of Sonnet 29 to a friend. Sara could also practice an essay question on this poem and afterwards, use her flashcards to see which key points of the poem she included in her essay and if she missed any important points she’d like to include in future. You might be going over the same information but you can test yourself in different ways to prevent getting bored of revising the topic.

The first point we spoke about was turning passive reading into an active exercise by asking yourself questions. So, let me know in the comments: did you learn something new or were there points you were already familiar with?

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