Revising by simply reading the same information over and over again? Try these proven strategies to boost your learning (and save you time).
1 Retrieval practice
Retrieval practice is bringing information to mind from memory, and it’s something we do all the time – whenever you answer a trivia question such as ‘Who was the first person to walk on the moon?’ you’re practising retrieval. Based around the ‘use it or lose it’ principle, the process of retrieving the information makes it easier to remember again later, and it’s proven to be more effective than simply reading or hearing the same information again.
It’s important to leave some time between learning something new and trying to bring it to mind – you need to forget a little in order for retrieval to be effective. Then simply write down everything you know about the topic – or try a practice question – without referring back to your notes or a textbook first. Once you’ve written down everything you can think of, cross-check against your source material to see whether you have remembered correctly and completely – and where the gaps in your knowledge are. Then, after another period of ‘forgetting’, try again and see if you’ve remembered more.
2 Spaced practice
Spaced practice is the opposite of cramming: instead of spending five hours revising the night before an exam, you spread the same amount of study time out over the days or weeks before. Most students will tell you that this is by far the best way to approach the ICAEW exams – but it does require organisation and advance planning. Once you have an exam date in the diary, work back and schedule in your study time, putting in an hour or two each day (or five days a week perhaps).
The idea is that spacing studying out over a longer period of time gives your brain a chance to form connections between ideas and concepts. Though some students may swear by cramming, this method only stores information in your short-term memory – so, while it may get you through the exam the next day, you will soon forget everything you’ve learned. Spaced practice goes hand-in-hand with retrieval practice: those short, regular sessions are the perfect way to put what you know to the test and build on your learning.
3 Feynman Technique
‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ So said Albert Einstein, and this is the theory behind the Feynman Technique: to know whether you really understand something, try teaching it to someone else. The technique is named after the American Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who was nicknamed ‘The Great Explainer’ for his ability to break down complex concepts in simple terms.
Similar to retrieval practice, the Feynman Technique involves writing down or talking through everything you know about a particular topic without looking at a textbook or notes first. The key is that it must be in simple language – rather than just memorising a definition or using technical terms that you don’t really understand, put it in your own words (and try to use examples). This method can work well with a study partner, although you should be able to explain the concept to someone who doesn’t have the same knowledge base as you – ideally a 12-year-old. Once you’ve explained it as best you can, go back and identify any gaps, as well as any convoluted terms or explanations that could be simplified further.
4 Leitner System
Flashcards are a favourite revision tool – and with the Leitner System, you can make them even more effective. Created by a German scientific commentator called Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s, the method is based on the concept of spaced repetition (and shares the benefits of both retrieval and spaced practice). Start by creating your flashcards (either physical or digital with the help of an app such as Anki), then make three separate boxes: daily; twice a week (eg, Tuesday and Thursday); and once a week (eg, Friday).
To start with, all your flashcards go in box one and, as the name implies, you should test yourself on them every day. Whenever you answer a card correctly, it moves into box two; if you get it wrong, it stays in box one. Twice a week, work through the cards in box two. Again, if you get one right, it moves into box three; wrong, and it goes all the way back to box one. Once a week, test yourself on the box three cards; anything you get wrong should move back to the previous box for more frequent study. Eventually, all your cards should be in box three – and stay there – meaning you have successfully stored the information deep in your memory.
5 Dual coding
Dual coding simply refers to using both words and pictures to learn new information – and it’s something most textbooks do as a matter of course. Combining words and visuals gives your brain two ways of understanding and storing the information, and two opportunities to recall it later. While it may sound similar to learning styles or preferences, dual coding is a multimodal approach that has been proven to be an effective learning tool.
To practise dual coding, find examples in your learning materials of information represented in both formats and compare the two to see how the words describe the visuals, and the visuals represent what is explained in the words. Then try it yourself: look at a diagram and try to summarise the information in your own words (this is of course a key skill for a chartered accountant – being able to interpret and explain data). Then, read a definition and represent it visually, whether in a diagram, graph, timeline, infographic or mind map. Ultimately, try dual coding with retrieval practice: put away your textbooks and write down what you’ve learned in both words and pictures.
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Online practice software is available to help you get to know the exam software and functions, which should also form part of your revision.