I have declared a personal war on exam technique.
Actually, I haven’t. Familiarity with the format of an assessment is a significant influence on students’ performance. What I’ve declared war on is the use of ‘poor exam technique’ as an excuse for under-performance that is actually caused by students’ failure to learn the material on which they will be examined.
‘Exam Technique’ attributions
Confronted with evidence of failure, many students find the ‘exam technique’ attractive because it allows them to sustain the belief that they are ‘bright’ and ‘a good student’. Most of the students I teach invest considerable time and effort in learning and preparing for tests/exams. Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) suggests that the thought, ‘I have done badly’ is incompatible with the thought, ‘I worked hard for this’. This give rise to psychological discomfort. Consequently, the student is motivated to reduce the dissonance. This can be done by making a suitable attribution.
Three possible dissonance-reducing attributions are: (1) ‘I am not capable of learning’; (2) ‘I did the wrong things whilst learning’; and (3) ‘I had poor exam technique’. My suspicion is that (1) is unattractive because of its implications for self-image and (2) is unattractive because it implies the need to change longstanding beliefs and habits around learning and revision. That leaves (3), which preserves both positive self-image and entrenched learning habits by allowing the student to think, ‘It’s OK, I know this stuff really, it’s just my exam technique that let me down’.
I suspect this may also be true of some teachers, at least some of the time. Knowledge of a student’s failure is dissonant with our beliefs about our own teaching (most of us believe we are above average; Hoorens, 1993) and ‘exam technique’ usefully deflects doubts about whether the things we spend time and effort doing are actually working, especially since most of us (I believe) are apt to avoid attributing students’ failure to stupidity (cf. Dweck, 1999).
Like most teachers, I test my students fairly regularly, for a variety of reasons. I see relatively few examples of students’ performance being affected significantly by what I would characterise as exam technique (e.g. gross errors of time management, inappropriate application of material or misapprehension of question requirements). I wish it were otherwise, as problems of exam technique are, in my experience, relatively easy to fix. But, ultimately, problems of exam technique are reserved for students that actually know their stuff and, in the majority of cases, the core problem is that they don’t.
It’s students’ learning that needs fixing, not their exam technique.
There is now fairly unequivocal evidence that the learning strategy most likely to result in retention of material is retrieval practice, that is, the reconstruction, without prompts, of information previously learned and stored in long-term memory. Students who practice retrieving material from long-term memory forget less than those who do not (see this chapter by Karpicke, 2017, for a comprehensive review). Karpicke identifies several reasons why retrieval practice enhances learning and recall. First, retrieval practice is transfer-appropriate processing. That is, there is a large overlap between recall practice during learning and the way students will need to use material in their exams. Second, the effort involved in retrieval leaves memory traces strengthened. Third, retrieval practice incorporates retrieval cues into memory traces in helpful ways (semantic elaboration).
Although theoretical accounts of why retrieval practice works are under development, the empirical support for its use is unarguable. A study by Roediger and Karpicke (2006) is fairly representative. Student participants were given unfamiliar material to learn across four study sessions. One group was told to study (i.e. read and reread) the material in all four sessions (SSSS). A second group studied the material in the first three sessions and, in the fourth, tested themselves instead, by writing down as much of the material they could remember in free recall (SSST). A third group (STTT) were allowed to study the material only in the first session and then completed three free-recall tests (STTT). All the participants were then given a recall test. This was done 5 minutes after the end of the final session and then repeated after an interval of 1 week. After 5 minutes, students who had studied and restudied the material (SSSS) had higher recall than the other two groups. However, after 1 week, the STTT group had the highest recall, followed by SSST, with the SSSS group showing the lowest level of recall.
The problem of spontaneous adoption
This study, and the many confirmatory findings, demonstrates the superiority of retrieval-based learning over restudying for retention of material over the longer term. It also hints at why many of our students may fail to adopt retrieval-based revision methods even when advised to do so: immediate recall in Roediger and Karpicke’s study was better when the students ‘crammed’. Since a typical student probably doesn’t retest themselves over longer intervals in any systematic way, they remain unaware of how quickly they forget information that has been learned that way.
Ariel and Karpicke (2018) highlight a number of unhelpful beliefs that students (and teachers) often hold that militate against the adoption of retrieval-based study strategies. First, there is the belief that restudying is the most effective way of learning material. Second, there is the belief that, whilst retrieval is a suitable way of monitoring learning, it does not, in itself, provide benefits to recall. Third, even when students do use retrieval-based methods, students tend to rely on a ‘one and done’ strategy, whereas the evidence is that it is repeated retrieval that has the most significant impact on retention.
Ariel and Karpicke’s paper describes a study showing that a straightforward intervention increased the spontaneous adoption of retrieval practice in a group of student participants. They were given the task of learning English-Lithuanian word translations. They used software that allowed them to chose between ‘studying’ (i.e. reading and rereading) and ‘practising’ (i.e. being tested). Participants were randomly assigned to either a control group who were simply told to learn as many of the words as possible in preparation for a final test or to a retrieval practice instructions group who were given (1) information about the superiority of retrieval over restudying; (2) a graph supporting this information; and (3) the advice that the best way of learning for the recall test was to ensure that each translation had been recalled at least three times before dropping it from study.
Students who received the retrieval practice instructions made more spontaneous use of retrieval practice during learning and performed better on the Lithuanian translations than the controls. Importantly, in a transfer test given 1 week later, those who had received the retrieval instructions made significantly more use of self-testing on a task involving learning English-Swahili translations.
A card-based revision strategy
I was sufficiently impressed by these results to use them as the basis of an attempt to improve my students’ use of effective learning and revision strategies. I used ‘statistical test choice’ as the focus since it is a small and discrete body of material, it is straightforward to test both recall and transfer of learning and it is something my Y12 students had not encountered before. I taught the content in a conventional way. Then, after explaining and justifying the revision strategy I wanted them to use, I gave each student a set of revision cards for statistical test choice. These are set up so that, when photocopied back-to-back, there is a question on one side of each card and the relevant answer on the other.
I explained that revision with these cards should be done as follows (the strategy is closely based on the one designed by Ariel and Karpicke):
- Create space on your desk for three piles of cards: STUDY, PRACTICE and DONE.
- Start by testing yourself on every card.
- If you can answer a question fully and accurately, put it on the PRACTICE pile. If you cannot, put it on the STUDY pile.
- Alternate between STUDY and PRACTICE. Any card you have studied should be put on the PRACTICE pile. Any card you have successfully retrieved should be returned to the PRACTICE pile. Any card you have been unable to retrieve should be returned to the STUDY pile.
- If you have successfully retrieved a card three times, put it on the DONE pile.
During the ensuing study session, cards should gradually work their way across from the STUDY pile to the DONE pile.
I demonstrated this process, and then got the students to try it. I circulated and watched how they went about it, coaching where necessary. Over the course of the lesson I gave them opportunities to use the revision strategy. In subsequent lessons, I tested their recall using this Socrative quiz, which tests recall of statistical decision rules and has no applied element. I asked the students to use the revision cards for 20 minutes before their next lesson.
Here are the quiz results at the start of the next lesson (the following day):
The majority of students had 100% recall, although some students either had not acquired the material or had forgotten it very quickly. At the end of the lessons, the quiz was repeated:
Recall was higher; student 10 went from 13% to 100% correct. The quiz was repeated after a four-day interval:
Interestingly, whilst the majority of the students retained 100% recall, student 10’s recall had fallen to 38%. It is interesting to speculate whether this was due to individual differences in memory or to differences in strategy adoption. At the end of the lesson, recall looked like this:
Student 10’s recall had recovered, and, overall, recall was very high (3 incorrect responses in 120 recall trials).
What have I learned?
My informal investigations with my Year 12s suggest that the card-based revision strategy using retrieval practice is at least as effective as what the students were already doing. Their reactions to the Socrative assessment feedback suggested that they appreciated the impact the strategy was having on their retention. They also found the card-based strategy acceptable and even fun, particularly if they added a social element.
This is all quite encouraging, so I have now started investigating whether the strategy transfers well to less well-structured material. Studies in this area typically use very well-structured material as it’s easy to test recall unambiguously, so it is somewhat open to question whether this card-based strategy requires adapting for use with less well-structured content. I have created a set of revision cards for learning the classic study by Baddeley (1966), which is a requirement of the Edexcel specification and one on which my students performed poorly in their recent end-of-year examination. It will be interesting to see whether it has a similar impact, and whether the students find it as acceptable for this sort of content.
Assuming that it works, my intention is to develop the card-based revision strategy with my Year 12s over the remainder of their course. The aim will be to shift the students from relying on me to make the revision cards and spontaneously to create and use their own as part of their ongoing preparations for their final exams. Depending on how this works out, I would consider adding the card-based strategy to our induction programme at the start of Year 12, alongside the other elements we currently promote as essential, including reciprocal teaching and the Cornell note-making system.
Many of the ideas for this post came out of conversations with Andy Bailey.
Ariel, R. & Karpicke, J.D. (2018). Improving self-regulated learning with a retrieval practice intervention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1), 43-56.
Baddeley, A. D. (1966). The influence of acoustic and semantic similarity on long-term memory for word sequences. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18(4), 302–309.
Dweck, C.S. (1999). Self Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development. Hove: Psychology Press.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row Peterson.
Hoorens, V. (1993). Self-enhancement and superiority biases in social somparison. European Review of Social Psychology. 4(1), 113–139.
Karpicke, J.D. (2017). Retrieval-based learning: a decade of progress. In J.H. Byrne (Ed.) “Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference (Second Edition)” pp.487-514. Oxford: Elsevier.