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Learning is testing

“Don’t confuse recognising information with being able to recall it.” - Adam Robinson

This is the final installment of the learning series. Last time we talked about how we might go about revising. This included avoiding starting too late , having a learning strategy (including when, for how long and where you study) and making sure that you had a syllabus and past papers ready.

Today's blog is about why you should approach revision as a series of questions. This is in contrast to revision techniques that focus on less direct practice, like reading notes or reviewing lectures. My belief is that good revision habits will help you achieve consistent progress, and reduce the stress associated with other revision techniques that leave answering questions until close to the exam. The root of this learning technique is that by testing yourself a lot, mixing up subjects and doing them with spaced repetition, we are taking advantage of a lot of the science-backed experiments.

Why testing is the root of learning

  • Testing takes effort. Learning is deeper and more durable when effort is required.

  • Testing is better preparation for exams; it tests ability to recall.

  • It tracks your progress, giving you feedback where you need greatest focus.

  • It avoids the illusion of knowledge people get from reading (which is more about understanding rather than memorising)

Different types of testing

Performing well on a test is being able to produce a good answer to the questions asked. The three main skills are:

  • Knowledge: Subjects such as Biology and Geography might rely on knowing how to classify different parts of a plant or river system from memory.

  • Knowhow: Some subjects tend to be more about knowhow like Maths and Physics (problem-solving)

  • Arguments and structure: For essay-writing subjects, the ability to summarise findings and present a set of arguments that you have evidence for

1. What do I need to know?

For most high school or University exams, having a syllabus and past papers, will allow you to answer the question 'what do I need to know or know how to do'. The syllabus will give you the scope of what you need to know (sometimes teachers add material that will not be examined, so relying on class notes might be too wide and miss some important details that are on the syllabus). The past papers give you a steer on the relative number of marks available for each part of the syllabus and what kind of problems you might be required to solve. I would always look at past papers before I started making notes.

Learning something is most difficult when it feels like learning a random list. Your brain finds it easier to learn relevant material that it understands. Whilst it might feel slow, understanding what you are learning is absolutely a time saving in the long run. In today's world, there are so many ways of trying to understand a concept, just a few are:

1) Textbooks and help from your teacher

2) Youtube clips

3) Podcasts

4) Open courses from some of the world's best universities

5) Khan academy and other online learning tools

2. Write notes in the form of questions

Your notes should cover the knowledge, knowhow and arguments & structure you need. This will serve two crucial purposes i) it will organise your knowledge in the form of questions and answers (more like an exam) and ii) it will be easier to create problem sets for yourself later.

Notes should be in simple language, well spaced out (for later additional comments), and be as visual as possible.

Knowledge: Each piece of information should be introduced as a question.

Definitions "what is a cell", followed by a very simple explanation that has simple words plus any important technical terms that are referenced in the syllabus.

Concepts "how do leaves get water from a cell", again a very simple explanation with a diagram of the travelling of water up the tree.

Lists "what are the features of a living organism". I used to use the mnemonic GERMNRCS in my Biology A Level exam. G = growth, E = Excretion, R= reproduction, M = movement, N = nutrition, R= respiration, C = cells, S = Sensitivity. I found the mnemonic a much more comforting way to not forget any of the features.

Diagram "what are the different structures in a flower", a simple diagram that you could easily reproduce in an exam with key parts labelled, is more easily remembered than descriptions.

Knowhow: Have notes that explain a technique, what kind of questions it helps answer and a step by step worked example.

Arguments and structure: I would be a fraud if I said I had this nailed when I was taking exams. I struggled with History GCSE. It felt that I did not have a system when approaching essays. I also had a bad attitude where it came to preparing the essay points before I started writing it. The best system I came across was from a book called "Draft 4" by John McPhee. He was a journalist who wrote some celebrated pieces. He found that writing was something you did once you had well-ordered strong arguments.

It's a great system, and recommend people use it to answer longer essay questions.

Step 1: Read the question. It is truly amazing how often people do not answer the question asked. It's words like compare, contrast, evaluate, critique that most often throw people. Make sure you are familiar with lots of different question styles.

Step 2: Either from memory, or using the sources they give you, draw out the main arguments for and against your conclusion. Why might they be reliable or not reliable sources.

Step 3: Order your arguments to make them most persuasive.

Step 4: Only once steps 1-3 have been completed should you write the essay.

3. Understand how to reduce forgetting

One of life's tragic stories is that learning is not a one-way process where memory constantly increases. Regular testing is experimentally one of the most effective ways to reduce forgetting too. In the chart below, without any intervention, memory decreases rapidly.

Regularly spaced practice, where you test yourself regularly, and increase the spaces a bit more each time, is a good way to keep your knowledge levels up and help you retain information. From the exhibit below, as you keep testing your knowledge you are making it longer lasting.

4. Create a question bank

The next step is to create a question bank. Here there are the obvious sources of questions from past papers, homework, and from the textbooks. You also now have your notes, which are neatly set up as questions. Open recall is considered a better way of learning than multiple choice questions unless the test itself is in that format.

5. Effective testing as learning

Use of flashcards: Flashcards are hugely effective. Each definition, concept, list and diagram should be written up in the form of a flash card with the question on one side and the answer the other. Interestingly to best stimulate an exam situation, the suggestion is to shuffle the deck so that you need to move effortlessly from one subject to another, rather than focus on one subject at a time. This helps your mind recognise the subject, then go deeper, which is better for durable learning.

The Leitner method for flashcards is an excellent way to focus on the knowledge that you know least, but still cover everything periodically. It's a simple system that uses 3 or more boxes. Every card in box 1, gets tested for example every 2 days, box 2 every week, and box 3 every 2 weeks. When you start, every flashcard is in box 1. If you get the flashcard question right it moves to the higher box, if you get it wrong it goes to a lower box or stays in box 1. It helps focus your time on the ideas that you most frequently do not remember and makes sure you are still covering everything each 2 weeks.

Going through the question bank: The question bank of homeworks, past papers and other materials should be worked on, again preferably mixing things up so that as you approach exams you are not purely doing questions topic by topic.

Use of blurting: Get a blank sheet of paper and write down everything you can remember about a topic. Check your Blurt against your class notes and correct if necessary. Get a different colour pen and add any missing information to your Blurt. You can then order the information into a mind map.

Comments on testing:

  • The key of testing is to create spaced testing with a mix up of questions

  • Periodically creating exam conditions, of lengthening periods of answering questions in timed conditions where you do not get up

  • Keeping a learning journal. Helps you celebrate the triumphs of the day and highlight where you need more focus.

  • Speaking out your answers makes it multimedia. Hearing your answers helps you remember better.

  • Find "challenge" questions and spend time on them. It should be a challenge that means you need to slow down and struggle a bit.

So what?

  1. Revising through testing, is the most effective way to learn according to research. It is closest to the exam itself, helps people gauge their own progress and results in much more durable learning. Importantly it helps avoid the illusion of knowledge that can come from re-reading.

  2. Effective Note-Taking is the cornerstone of learning. Using the syllabus and past papers helps define a scope and ensures your revision is targeted and efficient. Recording notes in a format of questions and answers creates problem sets for self-testing and ensures that information is easily retrievable, using visual aids and mnemonics will organise your information well. Understanding what you are learning and putting it into your own words, will save you time.

  3. Using past papers, textbooks, blurting and flashcards from your own question-based notes, practice spaced, mixed-subject testing. Practicing frequently in increasing periods of time under exam conditions will also make the main event less dauting. Maintain a learning journal to track progress.

Thank you for joining. Next week's blog, is "how can two sensible people come up with a different view". Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders ( Follow me on twitter: @HBSingh_uk


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