One of the things my students always tell me they value in class time is revision. Most students seem to feel that revision helps them learn material, but as educators we need to decide how and when to revise activities to optimise learning in the classroom.
One approach we can use to help students retain information better is called the ‘spacing effect’ (for a review see Gerbier & Toppino, 2015). The spacing effect has been shown to improve both recall and application of knowledge (see Kapler et al., 2015). Because our brains work through a ‘use it or lose it’ mechanism, we need to keep accessing new information on a regular basis or we quickly forget it.
All our students are familiar with the frustration of mastering a concept or learning an algorithm one week, then finding they can no longer apply it several weeks later during the end of trimester exam.
4 tips for revision
When is revision of new material most helpful? At the end of learning it? The following day? The following week? Or is there most value from a long revision class at the end of the study unit, just before the final exam? Is there any need to review material that was ‘easy’ to learn? And what is the best way to do a revision session for long term retention? Studies into the ‘spacing effect’ can provide some useful guidelines for optimal revision in course planning.
How can these guidelines be implemented in subject planning?
Here are some examples of how these tips can be applied:
The start of the class
Every class begins with an interactive quiz using applications such as Socrative or Kahoot, based on material from the previous week’s lecture, and including one or two questions from earlier material as well. Even if students do poorly, the attempt to recall information has been shown to help future attempts to learn this information (Gerbier & Toppino, 2015).
After a quiz
After the quiz, a summary of the material covered a week ago is presented, with emphasis on the areas that students scored poorly on during the interactive quiz. All material is summarised, both hard and easy.
On a regular basis
Regular small tests are held every few weeks during trimester, covering the previous two or three weeks of material. This way students are incentivised to revise material more often during the trimester, rather than rely on cramming at the end.
Revision helps stop knowledge being lost. Ideally, students should revise their course material all the time outside class to retain their new skills. However, the reality is most students face a weekly avalanche of new material and very little review time at home due to increasingly busy schedules. As educators we need to build revision into our course designs so that students have more opportunities to access new knowledge and therefore retain it more easily.
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- Gerbier, E. and Toppino, T. (2015). The effect of distributed practice: Neuroscience, cognition, and education. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 4(3), 49-59.
- Kapler, I., Weston, T. and Wiseheart, M. (2015). Spacing in a simulated undergraduate classroom: Long term benefits for factual and higher-level learning. Learning and instruction, 36, 38-45.