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Powerful Revision Strategies

In some of the other Revision Bites we’ve introduced you to how to structure your revision using spaced practice and interleaving and highlighted the importance of recall or retrieval practice. These are the foundation blocks of any effective revision strategy, and if you haven’t already worked through these Revision Bites we strongly advise you to take a look now. In this Bite we look at some other proven techniques that you can use to further refine your approach. Although we’ll look at them as separate concepts, hopefully it’s obvious that they are often interrelated and you can easily incorporate elements of each into an overall strategy. 

Go beyond the notes

One problem with traditional revision methods such as re-reading and writing out notes is that they tend to represent a relatively shallow approach to revision – ok (although not great) for memorising facts or details, but not much beyond that. But exams will often require you to do more than simply memorise material  you’ll often be expected to apply the ideas to practical situations, to analyse why and how something occurs, or to synthesise different ideas and come to some sort of position. So your revision should be built around these higher order activities – application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. 

That is, you need to elaborate – to practice explaining and describing ideas in detail and with analytical depth. Taking a critical approach to the material you are learning is crucial. This means not simply accepting as fact everything you encounter but instead critiquing the material so that you understand not just the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’, as well as being able to recognise weaknesses or counter-arguments. You should ask yourself lots of questions about the material, and about your understanding of and engagement with the ideas or arguments. You can read more about this concept of Elaboration here. 

Turn theory into practice

As we mentioned above, one thing that you’re often expected to do at university is to apply what you’ve learned to practical situations. It makes sense therefore to build this into your learning strategy. Furthermore, a very good way of learning and understanding something is to apply abstract ideas to specific ‘real-world’ examples. Since this idea itself is a little abstract and could do with a concrete example or two to back it up, why not check out the examples the Learning Scientists have come up with to illustrate the concept?

Learn something in multiple ways

Another reason to explore multiple different strategies for learning is that evidence suggests that we learn things better if we can retrieve the information in more than one way. Dual coding, for example, is an approach to studying which combines verbal and visual approaches. You can read more about dual coding, including advice on how to go about it, here.

More broadly, there are a number of simple strategies you could put in place to start learning and processing material in multiple ways. You might, for example, look to turn linear notes into a mindmap, or do the reverse and verbally describe a picture or diagram, elaborating (see above) on what you see in front of you. Another useful technique is to pretend you’re teaching the subject to a class – be sure to actually speak out loud as you explain the idea or concept, perhaps also using a whiteboard or even a piece of paper to illustrate as you go.

Finally, they’re not for everyone but many people can find study groups enormously helpful. We are, at heart, social animals but all too often revision is seen as a solitary activity. But as long as you don’t get distracted from the task at hand a study group can be a great way of explaining, elaborating and retrieving ideas and information. Throw questions at each other, teach each other, argue, debate and disagree, and watch your learning grow and grow.


As you can see, there are a number of different ways you can refine and enhance your revision. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here –it’s a matter of experimenting and finding out a combination of things that work for you. And then you’ll be well on your way to ditching the time consuming, ineffective approaches to revision and arriving at the exams feeling confident and well prepared for the challenge ahead.


Further advice:

Read what The Learning Scientists have to say about ElaborationConcrete Examples and Dual-coding