No more highlighting – Improving learning with effective techniques.

Teaching is not just about giving the students knowledge but also providing the learner with signposts to help develop their studentship skills and become a better learner in general. A recent monograph has considered the relative benefits of a variety of revision and learning strategies that students utilise and reflected on the impact they have on both learning and retention of content.

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 11.32.48Some of the findings will not come as a surprise to you (highlighting and rereading are not effective strategies) but there is probably more to be gained by focusing on the top performing techniques that both us as teachers and also students themselves should be fostering. I know when students are ‘revising‘ many think that revisiting the course reader armed with a handful of multicoloured highlighters is an effective way — well at least there is something visible to show for the work!

In table 1 you can see a summary of the findings from Dunlosky’s review of research into ten different techniques often practiced by teachers and learners and their relative effectiveness.

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 11.25.52

Elements that seem to be key to improving retention are techniques that encourage the student to think about what they are reviewing and distributing their efforts over time.

The full article is quite a read at over 50 pages but it is possible to drop into it and review each of the ten techniques individually or just read the discussion of the article. I am planning on using the findings from this research in several ways from developing more elaborative questioning techniques to altering worksheets to encourage students to explain their answers to demonstrate their understanding (more on this here).

In class I am going to develop this as a critical thinking exercise. I am going to give a summary of this paper and the table above to students and ask them to develop their own revision strategies using a variety of the discussed techniques. Then I will ask them for a rationale for why it will be an effective method.

A technique called ‘Spaced Learning’ builds on many of the concepts that Dunlosky identify as ‘highly’ effective. This involved students completing their revision in stages, which each stage (about an hour) having four key components:

  1. Review of topic (about ~20 minutes) – this can take any form and is not prescriptive – it is about allowing the student to revisit their notes and build their knowledge base before completing the next tasks. Make sure that the topic is small – anything too large and it will be too much – this is about distributing topics over shorter, more effective revision periods.
  2. Transformation exercise (about ~20 minutes) – here students put their notes away and transform the knowledge into something else – this could be a mind map, a drawing, a song, a poem, flash cards etc. (There are some excellent ideas in this resource). The idea is that by transforming their knowledge they have to keep asking ‘why’ – why does that item link with another item on a mind map, why should that part be in the drawing …
  3. Practice testing (about 10 minutes) – with a friend, family member, study buddy – or just using the cover, write check method – quickly test yourself on the topic.
  4. Exam question (about 10 minutes) – complete an exam question on the topic / sub-topic you have completed and check this with a mark scheme.

Example of Spaced Learning I designed for my students mock revision.
Example of Spaced Learning I designed for my students mock revision.
This process takes place on a rolling timescale. On day 1 of revision students complete part 1 & 2. Then the next day return to the topic and complete part 3 & 4. On that second day the student does part 1 & 2 for their second topic as well … onwards over many days and weeks.

Spaced Learning

Are there any surprises in the articles? How might you change your practice, resources or classroom in light of this? Are the techniques ranked as you would imagine them?


Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., and Willingham, D.T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

DOI: 10.1177/1529100612453266 (Full text article currently available here)

Jamie Davies is an occasionally brilliant, 33-year-old assistant principal, teacher, author, data scientist and educationalist from Yorkshire.

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