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Get Set For Success: Year 11 Revision

In an article called 'Strengthening the Student Toolbox', John Dunlosky and his team examined a range of strategies for learning and ranked them in order of effectiveness.

Two top study techniques were identified which boost learning: practice testing and distributed practice.

What is practice testing?

Practice testing means self-testing or taking practice tests on to-be-learned materials. Putting it simply, it is a means of testing knowledge and understanding in a low-stakes way where students are given the opportunity to try repeatedly, make mistakes and potentially fail and to learn from those mistakes with minimum academic penalty. This could include things like completing exam papers, using flashcards, or summarising key information.

Dunlosky concluded that practice tests can improve student learning in both direct and indirect ways. He sets out this scenario: Two students read a chapter of a textbook. Both review the important information in the chapter. Next, one student reads the chapter again whereas the other student hides the answers and try to recall the information from memory. By testing themselves, the second student is boosting their long-term memory. Going through the process of retrieval (if correct retrieval) can have a direct effect on memory. Thus, practice testing is considered to be a high impact study technique.

Practice testing can also have an indirect effect on student learning. If a student fails to recall correct information it highlights areas that need to be restudied. As a result, students can effectively decide which areas need further practice and which do not. Therefore, practice tests are way for students to identify what they know and what they do not.

When using practice tests, students should continue testing until all required knowledge and understanding has been correctly recalled at least once from memory.

In practice

  • When reading a chapter in a textbook, make flashcards, with one key term on one side and the correct answer the other.

  • When studying key concepts on flashcards, they should first write down their answers or definitions of the concept they are studying, and then should compare their written answer with the correct one.

  • For notes, they can hide key ideas or concepts with their hand and then attempt to write them out in the remaining space. They can then compare their answer with the correct one and easily keep track of what they are retaining.

  • They should keep practice testing until all concepts can be recalled from memory.

  • When using flashcards, once a concept or key idea has been mastered, it can be pulled from the stack.

  • If recall is not correct, they should go back through their notes again and retry.

  • Ideally, students should try to get it right more than once, e.g return to the stack of cards on another day and relearning the material.

What is distributed practice?

Distributed practice, in very simple terms, is spreading your work out over time. In Year 11, students should plan revision from Easter to the end of the exams and avoid last minute cramming (known as massed practice).

In his article, Dunslosky gives the example of a student trying to learn some basic concepts for geology for an upcoming test in class. They might read over their notes diligently, in a single session the night before the exam, until they think they are ready for the test (cramming, in other words). Many students use this technique.

Alternatively, they could study their notes and texts during a shorter session several evenings before the test and then study them again the evening before. The student would be distributing their study across two sessions. Compared to massed practice, distributed practice enables students to retain what they are learning over a longer period of time.

Why is 'cramming' not so effective?

Cramming the night before an exam can give students the illusion that they are familiar with the content they have revised. In contrast, distributed learning can give the impression that learning is a slower process because it is taking longer. Dunslonsky says that this is a misconception.

If we return to the student preparing for the geology test for a moment. By cramming the night before the test, they may feel that they have become familiar with their notes after reading them through several times in a single session. However, when distributing their practice across two study sessions, they may realise how much they have actually forgotten and need extra study time to get back up to speed. Distributed practice is an effective way to prioritise areas that need more focus.

It is true to say that learning may seem harder and take longer when using distributed practice but in the long run it will have a greater impact on student success. Let's use another example to illustrate the effectiveness of this method of revision. If a dancer was preparing for a dance show, dancers may practice the routine everyday until they have mastered it. If they were to simply cram in hours of practice the night before the performance, it is likely that they would not master it or at least be more prone to making a mistake during the performance.

In Practice

  • Students needs to start early rather than leaving exam revision until the last minute.

  • Create a revision timetable and set aside blocks of time throughout each week to study the content for each subject.

  • Study and use practice tests.

  • Work out how many study sessions you need before each exam.

  • Identify what they should practice during each session.

  • For any given subject, two short study blocks per week may be enough to begin studying any new material and to restudy previous learning (using practice tests).

Other strategies

  1. Switching between subjects - make sure you plan to revise a different subject each day. Map this out on a revision timetable. Avoid studying subjects in large blocks.

  2. Explaining things to others - students could talk through a topic to a friend or member of the family.

  3. Explaining how to solve a problem - students could talk through an answer to an exam question with someone else.

  4. Mind maps - useful for summarising.

  5. Become familiar with the specifications for exam boards: what you need to know, how you will be marked, download past exam papers to

In conclusion, if students can get into the habit of using distributed practice and practice tests alongside learning at school now, they may find preparing for a final exam less difficult because they will already have a good knowledge and understanding of their subjects' course content.

Good luck!


Dunslosky, J. 'Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning'. American Educator. Fall 2013.

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