How to study (for English)

This post explores studying for exams, and the recent approach that I took with my classes to develop their knowledge and skills in studying.

Before the recent Semester 1 examination period, I talked through exam revision with my Year 11 Literature and Year 12 English classes. I pointed out that artfully arranging their notes around them, or reading over or highlighting material, doesn’t work to ensure that they are able to retrieve knowledge on the day of the exam, or to hone the skills needed for the exam. I explained and explicitly taught research-based study strategies such as spaced practice, interleaving practice, retrieval practice and dual coding.

I shared links to study skills resources with students, including the following.

  • Carl Hendrick’s excellent introductory blog post on study skills. He points out that “retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving are some of the most productive ways of revising material but how many students are familiar with this? I think there is often a tendency to focus too much on what teachers are doing and less on what students are doing.”
  • Megan Sumeracki’s post on dual coding. She says, “dual coding is the process of combining verbal materials with visual materials. There are many ways to visually represent material, such as with infographics, timelines, cartoon strips, diagrams, and graphic organisers. When you have the same information in two formats – words and visuals – it gives you two ways of remembering the information later on. Combining these visuals with words is an effective way to study.”
  • Oliver Caviglioli’s video on dual coding.
  • Joe Kirby’s post on knowledge organisers. He notes that “knowledge organisers are brilliant for revision. In the past, I hugely underestimated the sheer volume of retrieval practice required for pupils to master all their subject knowledge in long-term memory. Specifying the exact knowledge is just a starting point. Sequencing it, explaining it, checking it, quizzing on it, practicing combining it, testing it, and revising it for years are vital if pupils are to remember it for years to come.”

Spending time during our revision week on explicitly teaching and supporting students in their use of study skills resulted in: clear study plans over a period of time (not cramming!), clear individual goals and actions to prepare for the exam, and increasingly productive use of students’ study time.

A flurry of palm cards appeared in class as students embraced retro technologies for revision notes. Some students commented that their normal study habits have been unsuccessful. A number reflected that they were previously often unable to recall content in an exam, and that maybe it was ineffective studying (and the performance or appearance of studying without actually doing the mental work) that was the reason.

Many students felt empowered that they now knew what to do. Previously they had the will, but perhaps not the strategy or skill to make their time spent studying productive. I encouraged them to spend time doing things that were most likely to make a difference.

Students weren’t all working on the same thing, but each was able to articulate to me what they were doing to prepare for the exam, and why. Each realised the importance of memorised knowledge, something they often neglect when preparing for an English exam (“It’s fine! I’ll just go in and write words about stuff.”). They tell me these lessons on studying also influenced their preparation for other exams.

Below I share some example slides from my revision lessons, to give an idea of the kinds of things I covered.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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