Some years ago I wrote a piece in the Catholic Herald on revision. I think it worked – if an email I received from a reader is anything to go by. Here’s what he wrote.

“I just wanted to let you know that I passed this on immediately to my undergraduate son, verbatim, and to all the students on the several courses I teach at (Oxford) Brookes in at least precis form. It is the single most useful piece of advice I have seen on how to learn.”

Some of you will remember this because you made supporting contributions. And I do not suppose that all you readers today are students. But you may well have relations or friends who are studying – perhaps for exams this Summer – and indeed all of us need to recall what we have learnt from time to time. So, here goes:


‘White founts falling in the Courts of the sun, and the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run.” I shot the first couplet of Chesterton’s Lepanto at my old friend. And he responded with a word-perfect quatrain. No, we didn’t remember every line, but we made a fair attempt at a poem we had learnt in class well over 60 years ago. Long-term memory.

Revision and recall are topics which make the student of any age sigh with tedium. Out with those notes we made so long ago; out with the textbooks or the internet pages which have faded in our memory. And then the midnight hour when our lucubrations strive to push back into the skull information that has been leaking out from our memories for weeks. And of course it is much too late.

Fortunately scientific investigations have discovered many factors which relieve the difficulties of revision: unfortunately few are taught these – and even fewer put them into practice.

Here is a question. Imagine two groups both of which were taught the same material in a lecture. Group A was tested the same day and group B was tested a day later. Both groups were re-tested to discover the amount of material retained two months later. Which of the two groups have remembered most?

Interestingly, not only did Group A retain about six times as much as Group B but, after 63 days, it retained nearly twice as much as Group B retained on the day following the lecture itself. So revision is less about work than about timing. Yet too many of us are inclined to leave all revision to the very last moment when we could save ourselves trouble and greatly improve our memories by revising at the first moment.

Tony Buzan, whose Use Your Head (BBC) is my bible in such matters, suggests that the most efficient routine is to revise about 10 minutes after the original study, then a day later, a week later and a month later. By that time the learning should be in the long-term memory.

The precise ways in which memories work have not been fully established. But the distinction between short- and long-term memory is useful. I think of short-term memory as a slightly leaky bucket. Its capacity is small – perhaps three to six items – and I have to get these into the reservoir of long-term memory before the items have leaked away or have been replaced by new items of information.

There are simple ways of nudging the items into the long-term memory. The easiest is repetition. Another method is finding an association. I am bad at recalling names but I remember the name of my housekeeper, Marta, (because she is a “martyr” to her work).

But revision, on the sort of schedule Buzan suggests, has little value unless you work with the material you are trying to remember. That is the best means of employing the long-term memory.

Suppose that I am trying to revise some material that I learned about the Church and slavery. No, I don’t look at my notes. What I do first is to scribble down on rough paper what I can remember. In this way I reconstruct knowledge in a way that strongly bolsters recall. So my list might start with “Aristotle, Paul and slavery, Wilberforce, Jesuits in Maryland” and so on. Only then do I look at my notes. I know that re-discovering what I have forgotten or remembered incorrectly will drive the right memories deeper. I am also inclined to give a lecture on any subject I am revising to an imaginary audience, before I look at the notes. But you need to be an egoist like me to do that.

Either way, the experts are clear that continuing to reconstruct the information through frequently attempting to recall it is the most effective technique for successful revision.

Some instructors will administer a brief tick-box questionnaire at the end of a period of instruction. This in itself acts as revision, and so is advantageous. It is enhanced, by the way, by the instructor signalling the test in advance, and so giving the student a motivation for higher attention. A similar effect would be achieved by two friends agreeing to quiz each other about 10 minutes after the instruction.

A further disadvantage of leaving revision until the last moment is that panic leads to long hours of weary work. But, as in all learning, the level of attention is maintained by working for short periods, say 30 minutes, and then having a little break. This aids attention and gives an opportunity for reviewing the revision. And I emphasise again that using different, active, methods of revision beats by a long way re-reading notes until the eyes blur. Remember that good sleep enables the memory to store important information effectively – so long nights studying are counterproductive.

But you may say that you no longer have a need to study like this. Perhaps not, but you almost certainly have a friend or a relative who needs it. Will their instructors have taught them how to revise? Possibly, but when I made a professional audiotape on the issue some years back several teachers told me that they themselves were ignorant of the available research.

I have confined this column to a few key points. But I trust that many of you have experience of teaching and instruction. So do share your ideas with us here. You may well be helping someone pass an exam they might otherwise have failed. (Ends)

PS You can of course see the original when it came out by using Search on this page. But I have made one small change. Can you spot it? Looking for it will be an aid to memory. Who will find it first? The clue is: promotion.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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  1. Alasdair says:

    Memory is of course only one, but certainly not the most important skill required to pass exams in many subjects. During my own time at secondary school my strongest subjects were maths and physics. In both of these subjects the primary skill was that of demonstrating understanding and the ability to demonstrate and implement a logical process under exam conditions. The first page of the exam paper was a data sheet which eliminated the need to memorise large amounts of information. In order to prepare for exams in subjects of this type a large amount of practice using model questions is required. Practicing to pass exams has to be an important part of any subject course and does not conflict with the student’s deeper understanding of the subject matter as many people seem to believe.

    • Alasdair says:

      Young people who sat the SQA Higher Physics last week were complaining that the paper broke the pattern of past years and with online advice. Apparently there were too many questions requiring memory and too few requiring interpretation and implementation of principles.

  2. John Nolan says:

    Learning a foreign language involves long-term memory; I learned French and German at school and can recall nearly all of the vocabulary and most of the grammar. Listening and speaking do need to be ‘dusted off’.

    And it goes without saying that it is easier to learn if you start at a young age.

    Fact-based subjects such as history require intensive revision, and having a good short-term memory is an advantage. The closer to the exam you are, the less likely you are to forget things. In this respect I always relied on last-minute cramming.

  3. Geordie says:

    I passed on this article to my son who is a university lecturer and he found it interesting and useful. He wants me to do more investigations into it. I’ll have a go, if I remember. I just wish that I had received this insight when I was a student. Perhaps it will help me when my dotage sets in.

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