Research School Network: We’ve got revision all wrong – why we need more practice and less theory!

We’ve got revision all wrong – why we need more practice and less theory!

You would count yourself pretty lucky if you were a student of psychology professor Robert Bjork’s. Not only would you be learning a great deal about psychology from a leading expert in the field, but you would also be learning how to retain that information over time.

The benefits of being taught by one of the foremost voices on learning and memory are clear from comments made by some of his former students. In response to a prompt asking what advice about studying they would pass on to a younger sibling, they came up with the following (Bjork 2001):

  • On note-taking: Wait to write down notes until the entire idea’ has been presented can be a method of creating meaning for yourself. You won’t be distracted between trying to write and trying to listen.’
  • On studying: Don’t study everything at once; rather, space out study sessions. This will allow for some forgetting, which is necessary for effective relearning.’
  • On preparing for exams: Use retrieval practice when studying. That is, test yourself on the material rather than just reading it over and over, because retrieval practice is more potent than reading, and it is more like the actual test.’

Of course, as great as this advice is – especially considering it’s over 20 years old! – it’s highly unlikely that all these students would have followed it to the letter. Yes, even students of the great Robert Bjork are similar to ours: they know how to study and prepare for exams in an effective manner, they just don’t necessarily do it in practice.

The problem, as Bjork (2007) notes, is that independent study involves decisions students make while they study on their own, away from a teacher’s guiding hand.’ Indeed, research into this area reveals some worrying findings. Foerst et al (2017), for instance, found many graduate students who knew about effective study strategies, did not manage the transfer into action that is necessary to benefit’ them.

This sounds a little too familiar. We probably all know of students whose idea of revising is to highlight everything on a page, read the same passage over and again or simply copy what’s in a textbook onto a flashcard. It is so demoralising when your well put together presentation on memory and learning fails to make a material difference to what students do away from your guiding hand.’

There are a number of probable causes. Even when students understand the strategies they have been taught, they may not necessarily agree with them, or think they apply to them. They may know how to translate theory into practice, or if they do, they stop doing it when the going gets tough. As Kornell and Bjork suggest, under time pressure people give high priority to relatively easy tasks- the items that are most proximal to the learned state and thus most readily learnable.’

The issue is often less about knowing what to do and more about doing it as a matter of course. Given that most students only learn about effective study habits in the build up to exams, this is hardly a surprise. As research into habits shows, it takes considerable time and the right kind of environment to establish routines. By the time students know what to do, their existing bad habits are hard to change.

In a recent webinar for Greenshaw Research School, Logan Fiorella explored his research on the science of habit formation. He highlighted how habits are established through stable contexts providing cues for repetition of desired behaviour, which are motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic reward. There is no definitive time scale for how long this takes, but research suggests a minimum of around two months.

In other words, just presenting students with ideas about how to study effectively at home – even with examples of what this might look like and/​or with tools to facilitate the process, is highly unlikely to lead to the kinds of habits that will have a significant impact on their learning.

Good intentions are clearly not enough. Even if a student is committed to using effective study strategies at designated times each week, unless they have a supportive and stable environment at home that provides them with all the necessary cues to help them turn their words into actions, it is unlikely they will develop good study habits.

There are just too many competing demands for students’ attention, such as the lure of social media and friends. Students who routinely quiz themselves, summarise work without prompting or work in short bursts, often do so without thinking. They already have the habit and so can direct their valuable attention to what they are studying, rather than suppressing their desires to go on their phone or go out.

Habit formation is hard and focusing on developing good habits – like many other things in education – often benefits those who already have them. The students who need to develop effective study routines the most will struggle to do so by themselves, no matter how many times they are told about the importance of retrieval practice or spacing out their learning.

Sadly, there are no easy answers. There is obviously a need for longer term planning to build effective study habits lower down the school: making sure students are doing more of the things we want them to and that they are given enough structured practice so the behaviour becomes habitualised. When the exams come round, these students should then be in a much better position to work independently.

But this still leaves the question of how best to support older students who are fast approaching their exams. Maybe schools should think more about creating sustained opportunities for students to practice effective study techniques, rather than just trying to motivate them to do it of their own accord. In school we have much more control over the environment and teachers have a better chance of ensuring that all students are developing good habits, not just the most successful learners.

Phil Stock – Director, Greenshaw Research School

Bjork (2001) How to Succeed in College: Learn How to Learn

Fiorella (2020) The Science of Habit and Its Implications for Student Learning and Well-being

Bjork and Kornell (2007) The promise and perils of self-regulated study

Foerst et al (2017) Knowledge vs. Action: Discrepancies in University Students’ Knowledge about and Self-Reported Use of Self-Regulated Learning Strategies

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