Exams are coming up fast, and there will be many households where tensions are running high about revision – when, where and how much?

But psychologists have discovered that many traditional revision techniques don’t work at all. High on that list is highlighting. 

Highlighting, as we all know, is fun. You get to use yellow and green and pink pens, and your glowing neon efforts are clear proof of how hard you’ve been working.

But our brains don’t like highlighting one bit. They don’t want to remember facts and figures in isolation. Why would they? What’s the use of that?

Neither do they like summaries. Making a summary of something can feel very effective in the moment, but afterwards, apparently, our brains just go ‘meh’ and forget it.

On the other hand, our brains absolutely love trying to fully understand something and then teaching it to someone else. If our brains do that, they have got it forever. 

But this isn’t very practical for students revising at home, so what do parents need to do to support their children when exams are looming?

Psychologists who have done in-depth studies of revision techniques suggest the following.

*Encourage them to start early and take gaps

Learning something for an hour over six days has been shown to be much more effective than cramming for six hours just before the big day. In fact, according to Professor John Dunlosky of Kent State University, in Ohio, this is the most important thing any student can do. 

*Tell them that cramming can also be useful

But only, apparently, if it comes after earlier ‘distributed’ revision (see above).

*Encourage them to test themselves

This really helps them focus and learn, and shows them how well they’re doing, and where they need to put in more work.

*Make them turn their music off

“Even just a glimpse of a phone can cause a major distraction and loss of focus”

Students who revise without music have been shown to do significantly better than those who revise with it on.

*Remove their phone

Yes, remove it. Psychologists in the US have discovered that it’s not enough to keep it turned off. Even just a glimpse of a phone can cause a major distraction and loss of focus. 

*Make sure they get enough sleep

We’re now making huge discoveries about the power of sleep to ease stress, absorb knowledge, and boost biological processes. Shakespeare, of course, knew this more than four hundred years ago, when he named it “chief nourisher in life’s feast”.

*Encourage healthy breaks, with exercise and fresh air, and also encourage drinking plenty of water

Brains need to be looked after, just like skin and muscles and hearts and lungs.

If you do all these things your child will probably hate you (especially because of the phone thing). But you’ll just have to deal with it. You’re the adult here. 

Try using good comparisons to encourage revision. Would they play an important game of rugby, or embark on a dance performance without practising a lot beforehand? It’s exactly the same for exams.

Personally, I’m no fan of offering bribes for results. I believe that the most effective revision comes when students are doing it for themselves. But children and families vary, and it might work for you.

What all students respond to, though, is lots of tender, loving care.

Tell your child you understand the pressures of exam revision. Let them off any regular chores. Make sure they have a friendly, warm environment to revise in. Offer good food and drink, and hold out the prospect of something to look forward to when it’s all – at last – behind them.

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