Meaningful Manageable Revision

39 ideas

How do we learn?

Robert Coe points out here that, “learning happens when people have to think hard.”  Similarly, Willingham writes here that, “What remains in your memory from an experience depends mostly on what you thought about during the experience.”   Kirschner et al. suggest here that, “If nothing has been changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”   

What works and why?

1. DIY revision works best

American research reported here found that “students learn more effectively when they monitor their own learning... knowing and understanding how and when to use learning strategies are associated with higher overall learning and better academic success.”

Strategies for self-regulated learning include:

  • Time management
  • Goal setting
  • Elaboration strategies
  • Organisational strategies
  • Rehearsal strategies

Strategies like peer tutoring work, NOT because of the debunked theory here that you remember 90% of what you teach, but because the process encourages thinking hard about the learning – the prerequisite for effective learning.

Research here also found that “it is not reliance on a single strategy or small set of strategies that is associated with good academic performance.”


  1. Teach students the five strategies for self-regulated learning above
  2. StudyblueMemrise and Quizlet allow users to create their own notes, flash cards and quizzes
  3. Ideas for using peer tutoring @Mr Reddy
  4. The Best Revision Guide for Students @Class Teaching
  5. Ideas for student revision from @ASTsupportaali
  6. Make revision more work for the students than the teacher! @iTeachRE

Reliance on one strategy

2. Difficulty is desirable

We sometimes assume that the ‘best’ learning is easy, quick, fun and common sense; however in Make it Stick, Brown et al. explain that, “learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.”  

The most effective learning strategies are also counter-intuitive; therefore “we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.”  

More Effective revision strategies

  • Practice tests with corrective feedback

  • Distributed practice

  • Interleaved practice

  • Elaborative interrogation

  • Self-explanation


  1. Find out What Works, What Doesn’t

  2. Find out more about ‘desirable difficulties’

  3. Draft booklet on study skills from @iTeachRE

  4. Supporting learning through effective revision techniques @Class Teaching

  5. Why I hate highlighters @Hunting English

  6. How to pass exams power point for students @Love Learning Ideas


  • Re-reading

  • Highlighting and underlining

  • Summarising

All identified as less effective learning strategies.

3. Revision strategies should be subject-specific

American research reported here found that, “Teaching...[study] strategies inthe context of the subject-area classroom is much more effective than teaching strategies or study skills in isolation.” 

Evidence into Practice suggests here that, “the sorts of ‘study skills’ events (which schools often outsource to external providers) are unlikely to have any positive impact on student outcomes.  A better plan might be to teach teachers the various mnemonic techniques and encourage them to find examples of where the ideas might be profitably applied within their own subject domain.”


  1. Every subject provides domain-specific revision strategies.  40 ideas @ASTSupportaali

Generic study skills

4. Spaced and interleaved revision plans work best

Spacing occurs when multiple study sessions are spaced apart.  The opposite of this is ‘massed’ practice.  Research shows that spaced practice improves learning. Carpenter et al. found here that, the optimal spacing gap equalled 10–20% of the test delay...[whilst] recent evidence suggests that expanding schedules might be better for short-term retention, and fixed schedules might be better for longer-term retention.”  

Interleaving occurs when we mix up different questions, processes and topics.  The opposite of this is ‘blocked’ practice.  Research by Rohrer here suggests that this can improve final test scores because blocking revision together “leads students to believe that they understand material better than they do.”  Rohrer warns however that interleaving is counter-intuitive because it feels difficult.  “Among subjects who did benefit from interleaving, only 25% believed that interleaving was more helpful.”


  1. Create spaced and interleaved revision timetables

  2. Study Management Planner @Love Learning Ideas


Revising for just a few days before the exam leads to higher scores on immediate tests but results in faster forgetting than spacing retrieval practice.  This makes it particularly dangerous for mock exams.

Explanation for why cramming doesn’t work here
David Didau explains more on spacing and interleaving here 

5. Elaboration strategies clarify meaning

Elaboration is the process of giving information meaning by explaining it in your own words and connecting it to what you already know.

Elaborative interrogation involves generating a comparative explanation for why a fact or concept is true:

Self-explanation involves explaining how new information relates to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.

They work because, as Willingham writes here, “Given that we typically want students to retain meaning, we will mostly want students to think about what things mean when they study.” 

However a word of warning, Blunt and Karpicke point out here that, “repeated retrieval consistently produces greater levels of long term learning than elaborative studying [without retrieval].”


  1. Increase the number of ‘why’ questions focused on meaning 

DUMP thoughtless repetition.  Repetition by itself does not lead to long-term learning.

6. MEANINGFUL mental models organise information more efficiently 

In Make it Stick, Brown et al. explain that, “putting new knowledge into a large context helps learning... People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organise them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery.”

American research reported here found that, “Generally, the more a learning strategy involves manipulating or organising material ratherthan just reviewing it, the more likely it is to result in deep understanding.”

It is important that any form of mapping is:

  • Based on meaningful groupings: Evidence into Practice reports research here that “semantic, hierarchical organisation of material greatly aided recall.” 
  • Correct: “once we have organised material into (what is for us) natural groupings, that re-presentation of that material within those groups is recalled better than if those groups have been changed” [which can reduce recall.]

Blunt and Karpicke point out here that “the critical factor in retrieval-based learning is requiring students to think back to and recall material, while the format in which information is retrieved (concept map or paragraph format) did not much matter.”


1. Create spreading activation models that give material meaning and connect it to other information 

2. Diigo allows users to collect, organise, link and annotate information

3. Thinglink allows users to create interactive memory boards

4. Create metaphors or visual images for new material

5. Check that students’ mental models are meaningful and correct!

6. Use Reflection plenaries

Mind maps that lack meaningful groupings  

7. Organisational strategies free up space in the working memory

Our working memories are finite but as Daniel Willingham points out in Why Don’t Students Like School?“Although we can’t make our working memories larger, we can... make the contents of working memories smaller.”  

Three ways of freeing up space in our working memory are:

  • To learn information to automaticity so that it transfers to the long-term memory and can be recalled without thought.

  • To chunk information by treating several bits of information as a single piece.  This is what we do when we read a series of letters: r-e-v-i-s-e as a word: ‘revise.’

  • To create distinctive cues which help us to retrieve information. 


  1. Drill key concepts to automaticity @Headguruteacher

  2. Chunk information as you teach it to help students with later retrieval

  3. Use memory palaces

  4. Use distinctive cue strategies.  3 ideas from Daniel Willingham here

REMEMBER that mnemonics are a retrieval strategy rather than giving information meaning.

8. Retrieval quizzes rehearse knowledge

In Make it Stick, Brown et al. point out that, “students who don’t quiz themselves... tend to overestimate how well they have mastered class material.” 

Roediger et al. suggest in Ten Benefits of Testing that “the act of retrieving when taking a test makes the tested material more memorable... compared to restudying the material.  The size of the testing effect, as it has been named, also increases with the number of tests given.”

When is practice testing most effective? recommends:

  • Repeated, retrieval-based practice tests followed by spaced restudy 
  • Feedback or restudy when students respond incorrectly on a practice test 
  • Retrieval of information from long-term memory rather than recognition based tests (e.g. multiple- choice questions) 
  • Practice until target information is correctly recalled once
  • That three relearning sessions are of greater benefit than a higher initial learning criterion
  • That the amount of additional time needed declines across relearning sessions

Research here also points out the benefits of collaborative retrieval work in promoting: 

  • Re-exposure: When individuals recall information in a social context they are often re-exposed to additional information recalled by the other members of the group that they would not have recalled themselves.”
  • Cross-cuing: “When individuals recall information in a social context the recall of others group members can also cross-cue or trigger recall of new information that would not be available to them if recalling alone.” 


1. Use the 6 strategies recommended in When is practice testing most effective? (see above)

2. Use activities that aid retention @Improving Teaching

3. Plan collaborative retrieval work

4. Use retrieval teaching as revision @HuntingEnglish

5. Use retrieval starters.  Thanks to Andy Tharby here for this idea

6. Use Free Recall plenaries

7. Get students to use spaced self-quizzing with corrective feedback.  Matt Bromley explains here

8. Use low-stake synoptic tests

9. Encourage students to form testing groups

10. Get students to create flash cards as tests for committing information to memory

11. Use ‘dynamic testing’ to determine students’ expertise

Posted on March 25, 2015 .