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Memory: Revision

A game-changer for me when reading research into revision was just how ineffective some of the most common revision strategies that students common use really are. Making students aware of this is crucial. Alongside the research presented in this section, I would strongly advise reading the papers in Memory: Forgetting, Spacing and Interleaving, and Memory: Testing especially with regard to the importance of testing and spacing. They are two very simple techniques that are likely to significantly improve a student's ability to store and recall information. Two final things I tell my students as a result of this research. Firstly, I emphasise the difference between learning and performance is key, because many of the most effective revision techniques will not be as effective in the short-term on performance, but are likely to lead to long-term learning. Secondly, I tell them that revision should not be easy. If it feels easy (like re-reading and highlighting does), then they are not learning. 

Just before we get into the research, have produced a wonderful series of revision materials based on research. These "Six Strategies for Effective Learning" are available as posters or PowerPoints, and are ideal to share with your students to help their revision be as effective as possible. The six strategies are:
1. Spaced Practice: Poster, PowerPoint
2. Retrieval Practice: Poster, PowerPoint
3. Elaboration: Poster, PowerPoint
4. Interleaving: Poster, PowerPoint
5. Concrete Examples: Poster, PowerPoint
6. Dual Coding: Poster, PowerPoint

Research Paper Title: Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques and Strengthening the Student Toolbox
John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, and Daniel T. Willingham
My Takeaway:
These two complimentary papers outline 10 learning techniques and discusses the relative merits of each one, in terms of their impact on learning and whether this is also true given different student characteristics. The two techniques that come out on top are Practice Testing - which can include something as simple as recalling information from flashcards, or working through questions from a textbook/worksheet, and Distributed Practice - spreading the learning/revision of a topic over different time periods instead of cramming. Interestingly, some of the techniques found to have little positive impact on learning include: highlighting, re-reading and use of imagery for text descriptions. This all fits in nicely with my mantra to students: the only way to get good at maths is to do maths. Note, that simply doing exam papers may not be as worthwhile as focused practice on a specific topic as it is often hard to isolate areas for improvement. The paper on Deliberate Practice in the Explicit Instruction section deals with this in more detail.
My favourite quote:
Concerning students’ commitment to ineffective strategies, recent surveys have indicated that students most often endorse the use of rereading and highlighting, two strategies that we found to have relatively low utility.

Research Paper Title:
What makes distributed practice effective?
Author(s): Aaron S. Benjamin and Jonathan Tullis
My Takeaway:
This paper seeks to explain the benefits of distributed practice during students' revision in terms of a theory of reminding. As well as confirming the benefits of distributed practice that we have seen in the paper above, and in all the work on spacing in the first Memory section, the authors of this paper make three additional points that I found particularly interesting. Firstly, they point out that distributed practice is a bit of a balancing act. We have seen in the work of Robert Bjork the importance of forgetting for learning. Students must have the opportunity to forget in order that when they practice the material again the storage strength of their memories are increased. Therefore, the timing of distributed practice is crucial - too much forgetting leads to unlikely reminding, and too little forgetting leads to impotent reminding. This will differ from student to student and topic to topic, and the best way for students to tell is probably through repeated self-testing to find the perfect balance. Secondly, because reminding slow does forgetting, the authors suggest that expanding interval retrieval schedules should prove superior for long-term retention than constant-interval schedules. So, students may revisit (specifically, retest themselves) on fractions after one week, then a further two weeks later, then a further three weeks, and so on. This requires careful planning on the student's part. Finally, the authors explain who reminding enhances the memory of the initial learning of the event, not the subsequent retrievals of it, so it is of utmost importance that the initial encoding is sound. This is expanded on in the quote below, and obviously has implications for us teachers in terms of the importance of how we initial present ideas and concepts to students.
My favourite quote:
A second implication of the reminding view presented here is that the memory enhancement occurs for the original event, not for the reminding event. Applied to skill learning, this view suggests that it is the quality of the original encoding that is particularly important for successful acquisition. If one initially learns a poor golf swing, for example, then the many later practice opportunities will serve to reinforce those bad habits, not correct them. How feedback plays a role in such corrections remains unexplored: it may be that corrective feedback can decrease reminding on an undesirable original memory, or that it serves to “tune” that memory by enhancing reminding of the original event and the corrective information.

Research Paper Title:
What will improve a student's memory?
Author(s): Daniel Willingham
My Takeaway:
This is a superb paper, which contains three really useful, practical pieces of advice to help students with their revision:
1) If you want to remember what things mean, you must select a mental task that will ensure that you think about their meaning, and if the task has little meaning, then use a mnemonic. We have seen from the Encoding section that students remember what they think about. This message needs spreading loud and clear to students. They must be engaged and thinking about the material. For example, if they can think about the meaning behind, say, the different forms of a quadratic expression and the turning and crossing points of its graph, then they are more likely to remember it. The problem is, quite a bit of maths appears to have no meaning, especially to students, and thus simply needs remembering. In these circumstances, the key is to make sure the memory itself has meaning to the student. So, if students are struggling with the meaning of a topic, then mnemonics can help. "Keep, flip, change" springs to mind for dividing fractions, and there are numerous slightly/highly inappropriate ways students have devised to remember SOH CAH TOA, which instill meaning on it for them. If it works for them - and they don't repeat them when my Headteacher is in the room - then I am happy.
2) Memories are lost mostly due to missing or ambiguous cues, so make your memories distinctive, distribute your studying over time, and plan for forgetting by continuing to study even after you know the material. Once again, mnemonics can help here. So long as they are distinctive, students should be able to associate them with the relevant memory and hence be more likely to successfully retrieve it. Encouraging students to come up with their own mnemonic that have meaning to them is a good idea. And we have of course seen may times in the Memory section the importance of spaced practice. This is possibly the single best piece of advice I give my students: test yourself, leave it a while, and then test yourself again.
3) Individuals’ assessments of their own knowledge are fallible, so don’t use an internal feeling to gauge whether you have studied enough. Test yourself, and do so using the same type of test you’ll take in class. Once again we see the benefits of testing, and also a call back to the fact that students (just like any of us) are not the best at judging how much they know a topic. This directly relates to the principle that if revision feels easy (strategies like rereading and highlight certainly give that comforting impression), then it probably isn't effective revision. Revision should require thought and feel difficult, and the best way to achieve that  -and indeed the only way to discover if you truly do know so something - is to test yourself.
Each of these principles is elaborated in greater detail, together with practical strategies, making it an ideal document to share with your students.
My favourite quote:
Many of my students also tell me that they reviewed their notes and were quite surprised when they did not do well on the test. I’ve found that these students typically know little about how their memories work and, as a result, do not know how to study effectively.

Research Paper Title: A Shield against Distraction from Environmental Noise
Author(s): Niklas Halin
My Takeaway:
This paper is fascinating - and potentially dangerous if not read carefully!  Participants were given four passages to read about fictitious cultures, two in an easy to read font (Times New Roman) and two in a difficult to read font (Haettenschweiler). While reading two of the passages, they heard someone describing another fictitious culture, which they were told to ignore. They then took multiple-choice tests over the passages to assess their learning. The results we as follows: when looking at the easy font, the passage with the background noise was remembered much more poorly than the passage read in silence. However, when looking at the hard font, the passage with background noise was remembered a little bit better than the passage read in silence! What is going on there? Well, it seems that when people really need to concentrate, they are good at blocking out environmental noise. However, when they consider something easy, then environmental noise can be distracting - although students may not notice this - and leads to poorer longer term recall. This is related to working memory - if you are really concentrating then there is little room in working memory for distracting noise to fit in, whereas when you are not concentrating as hard, there is plenty of spare working memory capacity for a distractor such as noise to work its way in there. My main takeaway - and indeed, what I told my students as soon as I read this paper - was that whilst they may do really hard study in silence, they they may be tempted to study easy material with their friends around, or music on, and so on. If they choose to do this, then they are probably going to remember less and/or it’s going to take a lot longer to process that information. There is also an interesting parallel with the recurring theme running throughout the Memory section of the importance of making learning difficult. Perhaps one slightly radical implication from this study is to make students revision material hard to read so that they concentrate more, which will aid memory.
My favourite quote:
The current thesis tested whether the shielding effect of higher focal-task engagement would also hold in a more applied context, with sounds that are more common in the built environment compared to tones (e.g., background speech, road-traffic noise, and aircraft noise), and with tasks that resemble those that people work with in offices and schools (i.e., proofreading and memory for text). The results of this thesis show that one way to attenuate distraction to environmental noise on office-related tasks is to promote focal-task engagement. A simple way to achieve higher focal task engagement is by merely changing the font of the text to one that is harder to read. This may not only be a practical solution to reduce the impairment of environmental noise on cognitive performance in work and school environments. It may also be an intervention that can reduce error rates in health care situations, but also be of aid to specific populations of individuals that generally have poorer attention control, like individuals with ADHD, children, or elderly people. Possibilities like these are something for future research to investigate further.

Research Paper Title: Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages
Author(s): John F. Nestojko, Dung C. Bui, Nate Kornell & Elizabeth Ligon Bjork
My Takeaway:
This is a nice revision strategy to use that has been shown to be effective. Simply telling students that they will teach something to another student changes their mindset so much that even if they don’t actually teach the information, they remember it better later on when tested. The effect on their retention was even greater than if they were just told to learn the material for a test. This suggests that a pretty easy way of improving a student's revision programme is to regularly have them "teach" other students, as the preparation for this teaching could have significant benefits.
My favourite quote:
Expecting to teach appears to encourage effective learning strategies such as seeking out key points and organizing information into a coherent structure... Students seem to have a toolbox of effective study strategies that, unless prodded to do so, they do not use.

Research Paper Title: Why Students Think They Understand—When They Don't and How to Help Students See When Their Knowledge Is Superficial or Incomplete
Author(s): Daniel T. Willingham
My Takeaway:
Two fascinating papers by Daniel Willingham that seek to explain something I have noticed regularly over the last 12 years - often students think they know something better than they actually do. Willingham put this down to issues of being fooled by  Familiarity (specifically mistaking it for the ability to recollect) and Partial Access (quick retrieval of partial information leads to the assumption that you could retrieve all the information). Willingham goes on to identify three common ways these features can manifest themselves in school:
1) Rereading - students glance over their notes for Fractions and think "that seems familiar, I must know that)
2) Shallow Processing - related to the key principle from Cognitive Science that students remember what they think about, if they are not engaging with the core principle of a lesson (the fundamental laws of algebra), but instead focusing on some less pertinent aspect (the fact that letters are written in alphabetical order), then they could well leave the lesson believing they have understood everything.
3) Recollecting Related Information - students know a lot of information related to the target topic, and that makes them feel as though they know the target information. So students know a bit about straight line graphs, so assume they can work out the gradient, find the equation of perpendicular lines, etc.
Willingham then goes on to suggest strategies to help students avoid these traps. These include:
  • Make it clear to students that the standard of "knowing" is the "ability to explain to others," not "understanding when explained by others."
  • Require students to articulate what they know in writing or orally, thereby making what they know and don't know explicit, and therefore easier to evaluate, and easier to build on or revise.
  • Begin each day (or selected days) with a written self test.
  • Ask students to do self tests at home or in preparing for examinations.
Notice how these utilise the Retrieval Effect discussed in length in the first Memory section, and also tap into the recurring theme throughout this whole page - if learning feels easy, it probably isn't learning. Finally, an important implication of this paper is that decisions of a class' understanding of a topic that are based on students' own self-assessment (for example, asking students to indicate how confident in a topic they are, or asking them to place a sticker next to their "level" of understanding) are likely to be pretty dodgy indeed.
My favourite quote:
Cognitive science research confirms teachers' impressions that students do not always know what they think they know. It also shows where this false sense of knowledge comes from and helps us imagine the kinds of teaching and learning activities that could minimize this problem. In particular, teachers can help students test their own knowledge in ways that provide more accurate assessments of what they really know—which enables students to better judge when they have mastered material and when (and where) more work is required.