Revising and mapping what works

Kay Williams

For most of our students the approach of the Spring break brings with it the prospect of revising for exams.  For those of us offering study advice, Spring is the season of the revision workshop.  This can be a tricky thing.  Most students have comparatively recent experience of exam halls and it’s easy to end up feeling that I’m dishing out fairly patronising guidance.

Revision what works

But this year things are different.  Around the start of the academic session a colleague brought in a copy of Scientific American Mind containing a review by five psychologists who looked at more than 700 journal articles on ten commonly used study techniques.  It told us in a few pages which study strategies ‘accelerate learning’ and which are ‘just a waste of time’ under the banner heading ‘What works, what doesn’t’ (Dunlosky et al., 2013b).  The punchy story is based on a rather fuller article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest of 50 plus pages of detailed consideration by the same authors (Dunlosky et al., 2013a).

So as a hook into an exam revision workshop it seemed a good idea to ask participants ‘What works, what doesn’t’.  A flurry of sticky notes later and the students were ready to share their thoughts.  Many and varied are the things that work for them.  Some write summaries, sometimes in a bullet form or condensed on cards, others create colourful mind maps.  They look up past papers to familiarise themselves with the format, practice questions and make outline essay plans.  Self-testing was mentioned as was questioning what you read.  Some are inventive and create stories to build up an image, or give a private lecture out loud or make slide presentations on key topics.  Others get together with friends and use flash cards to test each other or discuss ways of approaching sample essay titles.

So how did the techniques our students were using align with Dunlosky et al.’s findings about the strategies that accelerate blog_wordle_jpeglearning?  They identified two techniques as gold star winners.  First, we’re told, self-testing improves both learning and retention; and secondly, distributive practice, or spreading study over time, allows you to quickly relearn what you’ve forgotten and retain more (2013b).

In the workshop the students enthusiastically came up with a variety of ways they could self-test, and test each other.  Indeed on the feedback from the workshop many of them mentioned testing themselves more as something they would do differently in the future.  The idea of distributing, revisiting and perhaps interleaving chunks of revision, was less warmly embraced.  Perhaps they felt it was a little late to eliminate cramming.  Only one student specifically mentioned ‘spacing out revision’ as something to do differently as a result of the workshop.

They were various things that students recognised as not working.  For example ‘just reading stuff’; ‘reading endless notes – too passive’; ‘starting from scratch; ‘do not write every word, do not read every word’; ‘trying to memorise’ and ‘last minute cramming’.  So it was not really a surprise that passively highlighting and rereading were revealed as things that don’t work or ‘low utility’ in the article.  We did discuss when it might be OK to do these things, such as using highlighting as a sifting tool.
Rather like Conan Doyle’s dog that didn’t bark in the night, the absence of some form of mind or concept mapping from Dunlosky et al.’s study techniques aroused my curiosity.   This sort of mapping has become so widespread that almost every student has heard of it and some are enthusiastic practitioners.  Yet it isn’t mentioned at all in the Scientific American Mind feature.  Following the paper trail via the longer article, which does make some passing references to concept mapping, brings us to work done by Karpicke and Blunt with undergraduates at Purdue University.  Their latest paper makes for interesting reading (Blunt & Karpicke, 2014).

It turns out that how students use concept mapping techniques might actually make a difference to their learning.  In a series of experiments, undergraduates were either asked to use concept mapping or writing a paragraph as a learning technique.  Some did this in the presence of the text being studied, while others did it under test conditions in the absence of the text.  The results suggest creating concept maps under test-like conditions is more effective because this forces students ‘to think back and recall material’ (Blunt & Karpicke, 2014, p. 8).  However, writing a paragraph under these test conditions produced similar results and they concluded that the format ‘did not much matter’ because the critical factor is practising retrieval.  In their view, concept mapping is an effective learning activity, but what really caught my eye was the observation that students rated concept mapping as the more ‘interesting and enjoyable’ activity (Blunt & Karpicke, 2014, p. 8).  So, I’ll be mentioning that in future.

What was the most helpful thing about the revision workshop?  According to the feedback sheets ‘hearing other people’s ideas’, the different strategies given by students as ‘some are really creative’ and ‘providing new revision techniques through combined group ideas’.  In other words, the students who took part really appreciated hearing the ways in which their peers made the painful business of revising for exams more bearable and interesting, if not exactly enjoyable.

Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014, February 17). Learning With Retrieval-Based Concept Mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 1-9. Advance online publication retrieved from
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013a). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013b, September/October). What Works, What Doesn’t. Scientific American Mind, 46-53.


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