Study: 8 out of 10 popular revision techniques do not work – but there are 2 that do…

It’s the time of year where students are poring over their books, trying to ensure they are prepared for their exams. Revision charts, highlighter pens and sticky notes around the room are some of the methods people use to ensure information stays in their mind. But now psychologists in the US warn many favourite revision techniques will not lead to exam success. This is from the BBC…

Universities, schools and colleges offer students a variety of ways to help them remember the content of their courses and get good grades.

These include re-reading notes, summarising them and highlighting the important points.

Others involve testing knowledge and using mnemonics – ways of helping recall facts and lists, or creating visual representations of the knowledge.

But teachers do not know enough about how memory works and therefore which techniques are most effective, according to Prof John Dunlovsky, of Kent State University.

He and his colleagues reviewed 1,000 scientific studies looking at 10 of the most popular revision strategies.

They found that eight out of 10 did not work, or even hindered learning.

For example, many students love to take a highlighter to their notes.

But Prof Dunlovsky’s research – published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science – found that picking out individual phrases in florescent yellow, green or pink can hinder revision.

“When students are using a highlighter they often focus on one concept at a time and are less likely to integrate the information they’re reading into a larger whole,” he says.

“That could undermine their comprehension of that material.”

But he’s not suggesting that highlighters should be abandoned as he recognises they are “safety blankets” for many students.

Teachers regularly suggest reading through notes and essays from lessons and making summaries.

But Prof Dunlovsky says: “To our surprise it turns out that writing summaries doesn’t help at all.

“Students who go back and re-read learn as much as students who write a summary as they are reading.”

Some revision guides advise using memory aids, or mnemonics.

Prof Dunlovsky says they can work well for remembering specifics, like Richard of York gave battle in vain, which allows people to remember the colours of the rainbow,

But he warns they are not applicable to other kinds of material. “They won’t help you learn long passages or mathematics or physics.”

So what does work?

Only two of the 10 techniques examined turned out to be really effective – testing yourself and spreading out your revision over time.

“Students who can test themselves or try to retrieve material from their memory are going to learn that material better in the long run”, says Prof Dunlovsky.

“Start by reading the text book then make flash cards of the critical concepts and test yourself.

“A century of research has shown that repeated testing works.”

This is because the student is more engaged and it is harder for the mind to wander.

He adds: “Testing itself when you get the correct answers appears to produce a more elaborative memory trace connected with your prior knowledge, so you’re building on what you know”.

However the best strategy is to plan ahead and not do all your revision on one subject in a block before moving on to the next – a technique called “distributed practice”.

Prof Dunlovsky says it is the “most powerful” of all the strategies.

“In any other context, students use this technique. If you were doing a dance recital you wouldn’t start practising an hour before, yet students like to cram for an exam.”

Some students will always start late on their revision.

But Prof Dunlovsky says: “Students who cram may pass the exam but they don’t retain the material.

“When they’re going to be taking advanced classes in the subject, they are going to build on the knowledge they’re developing, so I highly recommend distributed practice.

“A good dose of cramming that follows up on lots of distributive practice is the best way to go.”

So do different techniques work for different individuals? Prof Dunlovsky says “no” – the top techniques work for everyone.

And experts think this paper could help teachers and lecturers help their students.

Dr Andrew Butler, of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in the US, says: “This paper is hugely important for the field and educational practice – it’s about getting best practices into hands of educators.”


  • Elaborative interrogation – being able to explain a point or fact – MODERATE
  • Self-explanation – how a problem was solved –MODERATE
  • Summarising – writing summaries of texts –LOW
  • Highlighting/underlining – LOW
  • Keyword mnemonics – choosing a word to associate with information – LOW
  • Imagery – forming mental pictures while reading or listening – LOW
  • Re-reading – LOW
  • Practice testing – Self-testing to check knowledge – especially using flash cards – HIGH
  • Distributed practice – spreading out study over time – HIGH
  • Interleaved practice – switching between different kinds of problems – MODERATE

More at:  Revision techniques – the good, the OK and the useless

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  1. I think what this is saying is that pupils and students who are taught well, who attend regularity, and who are tested at frequent intervals in each subject will be able to do their best in final examinations. In other words, if a student does not pay attention and learn as the course goes on, revision will be a more or less futile attempt to learn from scratch when it’s all too late anyway. Anecdotes about heroic cramming after idling prove only that regular review while the course proceeded would have got even better results.

  2. AlisonCork

    Tassomai I believe this – it’s the same with building anything – you need rock solid foundations and the best buildings/revision endure!

  3. King_of_Bio

    AndreaCrombie I’m going to email Jack Peck about that GCSE testing app now and see if we could just buy one copy

  4. kiranjoza

    charlie_love interesting. Wonder if distributed practice is supported by #CfE, ie integrated, multi-disciplinary learning improves recall?

  5. don_iain

    Course, out of those 2, only one is likely to be of much use to anyone for this year’s exams……..

  6. aiammaia

    Lallysticks I think those work high as revision techniques as they’re good practise for writing an essay from scratch – not learning per se

  7. aiammaia

    Lallysticks speaking as adult w Open University exp – what gets highest marks is practising writing essay answers to probable questions

  8. MrHistoire

    Lallysticks LearningSpy Ah, something to support my Y11 revision: ‘But highlighting works for me!’ Ta for this.

  9. Historylecturer

    SchoolsImprove RGS_History OK. But PRACTICE is the main way we get good at things – and that includes doing exam questions. Esp essays.

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