GCSE revision 2021: What's the best way to revise?

Is there 'right' way to revise for your exams? The research suggests that there are some practices that are more effective than others

Jon Severs

GCSE 2021 revision

It turns out that all GCSE revision techniques are not equal. We have already offered you the techniques you may want to avoid, but in this article, we will outline what the research suggests would be effective.

Once again we are calling on the expertise of Professor John Dunlosky of the department of psychological sciences at Kent State University, Ohio.

GCSE revision: what is the best approach?

Dunlosky puts it simply: successive relearning.

This, he says, has two active ingredients: retrieval practice and spaced practice.

OK, what do they involve?

“A good way to explain successive relearning is to break it into its two components – there are 100-plus years of evidence showing these active ingredients have a real impact on the durability of student knowledge,” he explains.

“The first is retrieval practice. Instead of going back to reread content – say, definitions for an upcoming test – you quiz yourself on the definitions. This has a much bigger impact on performance than just rereading.

“The other ingredient is spaced practice. That is: you attempt to retrieve a concept from memory; you continue attempting to retrieve it until you can get it right in a single session – so if you get it wrong, you restudy it, and you try and retrieve it again; and then you have to come back to it, say, two days later, and you do the same again. If you don’t do anything else after this point, you will still forget it, hence you need to go back and do it again and again.

“Successively relearning in this way creates highly durable learning.”

How do you know when to move from study to retrieval?

“If you cannot come up with the answer relatively quickly, then it is probably not going to happen,” he says.

“I think it is easier to go immediately to restudy if you cannot retrieve the information, but research says it does not hurt too much if you delay – let’s say you miss one definition, you may want to go on and test yourself on the others before restudying the one you missed.”

And what sort of time periods are we talking about for spaced practice?

“There is a debate in the literature about the best schedule for spaced practice. If you have a short amount of time, I try to recommend to space the critical content two or three times before the exam and then the night before, Instead of cramming all night, just use that last session to review all the material again.

“For longer periods of time, it is probably better to expand that schedule gradually, so the first space relatively short, then wait a week, then a month, and then after a while, it becomes semi-permanent knowledge.”

Is this a guarantee of success?

Unfortunately not. You need motivation, too, of course. The two work in tandem, says Dunlosky.

“Sometimes in education, people believe that simply motivating students – giving them the right mindset or grit – is going to help them out,” he explains. “I could develop a really motivated student who wants to achieve, who thinks they can achieve, but if they do not have the right tools to achieve, they will still struggle. There is a sweet spot between getting a motivated student on the one hand and one who has all the right tools at their disposal.

“That is why you might have the belief [that] you can be a great drummer, but you will only excel when you go and get the lessons and get all the strategies – that, with motivation, helps you get to stardom. The same goes for education: we need motivation and the right skills and strategies.”

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Jon Severs

Jon Severs is the commissioning editor of Tes

Find me on Twitter @jon_severs

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