Memory Matters / Effective Revision

On Thursday night I gave a talk to parents on effective revision techniques as part our Year 11 Revision Evening. The aim was to illustrate some basic principles relating to memory and how these can be utilised to improve recall and retention. This is a summary of the content.  

Illusions of Knowing

The first principle I discussed was ‘illusions of knowing’: this is probably the most dangerous pitfall in terms of revision. As the name suggests, this is where a pupil creates the illusion of knowing a piece of information, but is then unable to recall it. This usually arises when they have built up familiarity with a topic, so that every time they see it they get a feeling a of recognition. This is probably best illustrated by tests such as this.

Apple Logo Test

Which is the correct Apple logo?

Despite 76% percent of people in the UK owning at least one apple product, and most of those being carried around in our pockets daily, many people are still unsure about which logo is correct (I’ll leave you to look up the answer if you’re not sure!). And this is the danger, that pupils wouldn’t think of revising the apple logo if there was a chance it was coming up on a test: the familiarity has created over-confidence and an illusion of knowing.

In revision terms, the equivalent is this:

Reading and Highlighting

Unfortunately it is often the most conscientious pupils who revise in this way because they want to make sure that everything is covered. Effective revision needs to be far more targeted.

One way to achieve this is through completing a ‘Past Paper Matrix’. This method is included in our Year 11 study skills programme. Pupils start by completing past papers and then they use them to fill in the table below. First, they fill in the two columns on the left with the papers in front of them. Once they’ve got a list of topics, they work from left to right and eventually end up with a revision plan. The reason I like this method so much is because the biggest killer of revision is not having a specific and targeted task to work on. 


Memory Matters

Next I demonstrated some simple memory principles and how these can be used to structure an effective revision session. We started with a couple of memory tests: looking at each for 30 seconds, then waiting for 30 more before recalling the words. Here was the first test.

Memory Test 1

Rather than thinking about how many words can be recalled, it is more interesting to consider which words are easiest to recall. The most common seemed to be Apple and there are probably a few reasons for this. You generally remember the things you look at first and many people’s eyes are drawn to the upper centre in the first instance. In addition, an apple is a really recognisable image (probably one of the first images that we learn to associate with a word in our lives). Finally, there was an apple logo earlier in the presentation, so this memory has been primed and repeated. People also tended to remember the last word they looked at as they made a final effort to up their total.

Which words are hardest to remember? Probably words like ‘swap’. Some people will remember ‘hold’ because they noticed it appears twice and this makes it stand out. But generally, these abstract words are much harder because they do not contain a visual hook.  

You can also have a go at this list and think about how the same principles apply.

Memory Test 2

So the principles that help us remember things are:

  • We remember what we see first (primacy)
  • We remember what we see last (recency)
  • Outstandingness (Is it visual and memorable? Does it stand out?)
  • Repetition

We can use these principles to structure a study session like this:

Revision Session Structure

Short bursts of topics, revising the previous one each time, is the most effective way to revise and also incorporates the idea of interleaved practice.  

Revision Techniques

Finally, I spoke about which revision activities are the most effective. There is nothing revolutionary here, but it is worth being reminded.

1. Recall and testing

Because we want pupils to recall information in the exam, they should make this the central principle in their revision strategies. Research suggests that testing and recall is one of only two factors which makes a significant difference in learning outcomes from revision (the other factor is starting early). Good methods for this include flashcards, quizzes, peer to peer quizzing, and online resources such as

2. Exam paper responses

There is no substitute for timed exam paper responses. These are helpful for the reasons outlined above, but also for ensuring timing and exam technique is accurate. New specifications and curriculum change are poor reasons for pupils not to have a bank of these. There are lots of commercial equivalents available as well as specimen materials from which teachers (and pupils!) can create their own.

3. Condensing and expanding

As opposed to passive note taking, pupils who like to rely on note taking can do so by condensing and expanding ideas. My favourite way of doing this–which I used a lot at university–is to come up with all the possible essay titles for a subject, then plan them (condensing my knowledge). I then take the essay plans and speak them aloud in the style of an essay (expanding my knowledge). This is an active rather than passive strategy and a really good way of highlighting gaps in knowledge.


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