The Best Ways to Revise – what does the evidence say?

The Best Ways to Revise – what does the evidence say?

Revision Strategies

It is revision time in the UK, with many children facing internal and national examinations in the next few months. Here at Connections in Mind we have been reviewing the research evidence for the best revision strategies so our coaches can provide the best advice to students at this busy time. The evidence is surprising as many of the strategies students turn to have a poor evidence base for being effective ways to learn and commit information to memory.

The winners

Three key strategies are the winners when it comes to revising and they all fit with what we know about how the brain works. The following have been shown to be the top three ways to learn information:

  1. Distributed learning – also known as the spacing effect, is most effective. This means learning information more than once and distributed over a period of time. Cramming is not the best way to learn as things get quickly forgotten. The forgetting curve (see table) shows us that information is quickly forgotten and needs refreshing. The spaces between each ‘refresh’ can increase as the information becomes more embedded. So learning something on day 1 and then refreshing on day 3, then 7, then 20 is a sure way to learn. This fits with what we know about brain circuits needing reinforcing to strengthen and increase in efficiency.
  2. Testing is best – the fluency illusion is the term used to describe the fact that we often have a false confidence about what we know. Students can read through something and think “oh I know that” but when tested, they don’t remember as well. Testing has been shown to be the most effective studying technique to commit things to memory. Unfortunately, testing is loaded with negative connotations and students’ sense of self is often tied up with how well they did on tests. However, kids testing themselves on material learned, without the associated link to how ‘clever’ or not they are, is one of the most effective ways to learn.
  3. Mixed drill practice – mixing up your practice within subjects such as maths and science is important. For example, in maths, rather than doing a whole page of fractions, mixing up a fraction question with a simultaneous equations questions with a BIDMAS question is best. This prepares the brain for the unexpected and encourages students to recall the strategy or technique independently.


The losers

Some of the strategies known and loved by students have been shown by research to have low impact on learning and remembering.

  1. Re-reading – reading is a passive activity that has been shown to be an ineffective strategy for later recall. Perhaps reading something through once to familiarise yourself with the topic at the beginning of revision is helpful, but re-reading over and over again is not the best way to use your time.
  2. Highlighting and underlining – this can be helpful as a first step towards further more detailed study but it won’t be a good way to actually learn that information for later testing.
  3. Summarising – summarising is a skill that takes quite a bit of practice to get right. At the beginning of the learning process it can be helpful if done correctly and with support, but as a learning strategy it is also not a good use of time.


The take home messages:

Executive functioning skills are going to be key to ensuring your child is most effective in their revision and are therefore able to use time most effectively to not only do well, but also to have time off to relax and stay calm during the examination period. Skills to support are:

  1. Planning – having a good plan for each topic which ensures each subject is covered and they are reviewed a few times with increasing periods of time in-between sessions.
  2. Organisation – having access to testing questions and past papers will be crucial for enabling that all important ‘testing’ session at the end of each block of revision.
  3. Time management – this is such an important skill when revising to make sure sessions are started and finished on time. Breaks are as important as study sessions and sleep is crucial as this is when the brain consolidates memories. So without sleep the information may not stick!

Many other executive skills will be drawn on at this time, most notably emotional regulation which will enable the young person to stay calm and keep focused in the moment.

Victoria Bagnall
Victoria Bagnall