How to prepare for exams properly

Exams are often a taboo word for many who have to take them, mostly due to the obvious pressure that they involve and the fact that it requires revising often a year’s worth of work (two years when these new GCSEs come in) to regurgitate in the exam room.

Revision is often varied in it’s approach too. There are some who are methodical in their revision, planning breaks during time and making concept maps. Others decide to revise everything the night before, which in the profession we give the term ‘cramming’. I’m sure we all know people who have done both of these.

Well research published from Sheffield University provides bad news for those who choose the latter approach. It showed leaving a day between practice sessions was a much better way of gaining skills than continuous play. Researcher Tom Stafford says this reflects how memories are stored.

Prof Stafford, a psychologist from the University of Sheffield, was able to analyse how people around the world improved when playing the Axon computer game. He found a clear pattern showing that people were more successful when gaps were left between sessions of playing.

Leaving a day between sessions did not weaken performance, but strengthened it, says Prof Stafford. This is because it makes better use of how the brain stores information, he says.

Cramming for long intense stretches ahead of a test might feel like more is being learned, says Prof Stafford, but this is illusory. A better way of revising or learning is to plan over a much longer period, with substantial breaks between study sessions. For instance, practising a skill for two hours and then taking a day-long break before practising for another two hours was more effective than practising continuously for four hours.

Prof Stafford, who analysed the data with Michael Dewar from The New York Times Research and Development Lab, says this study of such a big sample of online game players provides a useful template for understanding other types of learning. It suggests that the volume of learning is less important than how that time is structured.

“The study suggests that learning can be improved. You can learn more efficiently or use the same practice time to learn to a higher level,” says Prof Stafford.

One might also choose to apply this to our school day. Does this research mean that being in school from 9am till 3pm every weekday with possibly up to an hour and a half break mixed in there is not conducive to effective learning for our children? I would imagine those who homeschool their children might look at this and feel a sense of support for their decision. I guess the long break in terms of school timetables could be the weekend. Either way it’s an interesting dilemma.


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