Several years ago, I was asked a very interesting question, why do students’ revise just before the exam. At the time I thought it odd that anyone would even ask, but I realised I hadn’t thought much about it, partly because that’s the way it had always been.
The alternative approach was, rather than having one big revision session at the end of the course, we should have two or three shorter ones at appropriate points during the course. This would avoid the need to revise so much all at once and as a consequence reduce the effort required. It was a good question…….
What is revision?
Lets start with a definition, the word revision can be traced back to the Latin “reviser” which means to look at again, visit again, look back on.
In learning it can be thought of as the process of reviewing and re-examining previously learned material to reinforce understanding, improve retention, identify gaps in knowledge and be well prepared for the test, exam or assessment.
To better understand what revision is, let’s take a closer look at some of those objectives.
- Reinforcing understanding – people tend to think of understating in binary terms, that is you either understand or you don’t. But understanding has several different levels, starting with the most basic, can you explain something? For example, I can explain to some degree, how a combustion engine works but could I apply that knowledge to how it might work in F1, I don’t t think so. Being able to apply your knowledge in different ways is a higher level of understanding. At the opposite end of the spectrum to being able to explain something is what is called self-knowledge. This is the highest level of understanding and is where you are so good, you can challenge your own thinking by asking, what are the limits of my understanding, identify prejudices and ultimately become aware of what you don’t really understand, which is kind of ironical when you think about it! The point being that when you look back and reflect on what you have already studied there may be an element of reinforcing or reconfirming your understanding of a particular topic but you will also be deepening your understanding, effectively moving it to another level.
“I know only one thing: that I know nothing”. Socrates
- Improving retention – we have to be careful with this one, although the act of looking back improves retention, the secret lies in how you do it. For example, re-reading notes, even with the use of a highlighter may feel that its helping but this is a well-researched area and the evidence tells us in terms of retention, it doesn’t really work. This is in contrast to retrieval practice, a study method that I have written about in several previous blogs. Here the learner is forced to engage with the material in an active way rather than a passive one, most often by asking them to complete a test or answer a question, in fact it’s often referred to as the testing effect. The very process of making the learner think about what they know, strengthens the connection with the material they are trying to learn, and moves it from short term memory into long term memory, which is how learning happens.
- Identify knowledge gaps – this is perhaps the most obvious one, looking back on a subject will reveal areas that you might not even remember studying at all. The implication is that there will be a certain amount of learning taking place for the first time. Of course, gaps in knowledge should be kept to a minimum by ensuring that the subject coverage is as comprehensive as possible, or at the very least focused on the most important areas. However, do not expect to have a complete grasp of everything, this is especially true as you move up that academic ladder, even experts have gaps in their knowledge.
- Preparation for the test – this is not really about learning, its preparation for the challenge ahead, effectively making sure you are match fit. One of the best things you can do in the revision period is practice past questions, including the completion of a mock exam. Not only will you be benefiting from retrieval practice, you will also be developing what researchers in 2016 called “question literacy”, the ability to know what the examiner is asking because you have seen similar questions before. Attempting a mock under exam conditions can also help you better manage time and be prepared for the way you feel under pressure. It’s no good having worked hard to understand the subject matter if you can’t answer the questions in the time available. Equally you need to practice leaving questions you want to answer in favour of those that you don’t, remember its always easier to get the marks at the start of a question than at the end. And finally, when the exam is just around the corner, although you may feel more anxious your levels of motivation, concentration and work ethic will almost certainly rise.
Preparing for the test doesn’t help you pass; it stops you failing. SPS
Why revision should be just before the exam
Whilst it’s possible to improve retention and identify knowledge gaps during your studies, you can’t effectively prepare for the exam until its close enough that the reality of how little time you have left is clear. Why do people suddenly become motivated, well its partly because the challenge is no longer distant, it’s no longer at some point in the future, its next week. It’s a variation on something called myopic discounting. For example, it’s very difficult to motivate yourself to work over a weekend in September if you know the exam is in June the following year. Also, the way you are learning changes when the exam is very close, you are no longer sitting in lectures or reading books but practicing past questions, improving your question literacy whilst building up your levels of resilience and learning new exam skills such as time management.
And one final thought, although some of what is memorised, rather than understood in the revision period may be forgotten, it can still help you pass on the day. Poor learning perhaps but good exam technique.