Encourage your students to study effectively for exams

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As the new year celebrations fade from memory and spring approaches, students and teachers are putting together revision timetables. They work well for some students, but for many the good intentions last as long as a typical New Year resolution. As a part-time teacher (in school and university) and part-time study skills tutor I see a lot of students who are struggling with getting revision done and I often ask them why this is. Here are some typical answers:

  • ’Having a big timetable set out is intimidating.’ If they miss a session early on they feel like they’ve lost it and don’t know how to restart.
  • ’I get distracted easily.’ Time spent allegedly studying is wasted.
  • ’I’m not sure what ‘study atomic structure’ or ‘study acids and bases’ means in practice.’ The idea of sitting down with a blank sheet of paper is terrifying.

Here are a few ideas that might help in getting students to find solutions.

In your class

In your class

Download these example activities: Revision flashcards and flowchart (as MS Word or pdf) and Revision mind map (as MS PowerPoint or pdf).

Spend a little time talking with a student to agree a realistic amount of time to revise and to put together an online or paper calendar where the student is in control of when the sessions take place. Get the student to discuss these plans with a parent/carer/grandparent/sibling who can agree to help. Sometimes a student will need someone to help keep them on track and, if they recognise this in advance, they are more likely to receive a reminder in a positive way and less likely to perceive it as nagging. A mentoring scheme in school can help in a similar way.

Not knowing how to revise means that students just read through a revision guide, perhaps with a highlighter, an approach which has been shown to be less effective. A potential solution is to set a range of homework activities that model more efficient ways of revising, such as:

Not knowing how to revise means that students just read through a revision guide, perhaps with a highlighter, an approach which has been shown to be less effective[1]. A potential solution is to set a range of homework activities that model more efficient ways of revising, such as:

  1. Self-explanation, otherwise known as verbal rehearsal, involves explaining the meaning of keywords or concepts or descriptions of phenomena aloud. Hearing the vocabulary spoken and speaking it yourself is an important aid to memory as illustrated in Why you’re more likely to remember something that you read to yourself out loud. Sometimes it is helpful to provide a stimulus to get the student started: an example of this is a mind-map starter.
  2. Prepare flashcards with a minimum of words and illustrated with simple pictures, because if you Want to remember something? Draw it. Then family members can test the student or students can test each other. Alternatively use flashcards with a blank template diagram and place them on the right part of the diagram. Download an example of the history of models of atomic structure (below): the student places the flashcards in the correct order. This can be combined with self-explanation. This has the advantage that the student not only learns the details, but in placing the cards onto the diagram, they see how the details fit together.
  3. Lots of quiz questions, either online or on paper, are a good way of retrieving information and therefore good at improving recall. However having the right mindset is really important. Some students can feel overwhelmed by how much they don’t know and can be afraid to try quizzes for fear of not being able to answer at all. They need to know that the simple act of trying to remember something means you remember it better (eventually).

Getting a student to recognise their distractions can be a hurdle. Possible solutions include using a browser extension such as Strict Workflow or Cold Turkey and the Do Not Disturb function on a smartphone. There is some evidence that knowing that you’ll soon be finished leads to better completion of a task – providing some incentive to keep the study session durations short.

Getting a student to recognise their distractions can be a hurdle. Possible solutions include using a browser extension such as Strict Workflow or Cold Turkey and the Do Not Disturb function on a smartphone. The British Psychological Society’s research digest blog identifies knowing that you’ll soon be finished leads to better completion of a task (bit.ly/2FK8Zlg) – providing some incentive to keep the study session durations short.

The common theme in these three examples is negative emotions: feelings of being overwhelmed, afraid and intimidated. I have been surprised that discussing and recognising these emotions is so often a positive step. This is backed up by research that suggests putting these feelings into words can reduce their impact. Getting students to talk through when and where they’re going to revise and helping them to visualise what their revision is going to look like can help to develop better, long-lasting strategies for the future.

The common theme in these three examples is negative emotions: feelings of being overwhelmed, afraid and intimidated. I have been surprised that discussing and recognising these emotions is so often a positive step. This is backed up by research that suggests putting these feelings into words can reduce their impact.[2] Getting students to talk through when and where they’re going to revise and helping them to visualise what their revision is going to look like can help to develop better, long-lasting strategies for the future. 

More ideas to help your students revise for science and chemistry exams: eic.rsc.org/revision

References

[1]J Dunlosky, K A Rawson, E J Marsh et al, Psychol Sci Public Interest, 2013, 14, 4 (DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266)

[2]J B Torre, M D Liebermann, Emotion Review, 2018, 10, 116 (DOI: 10.1177/1754073917742706)