Performing well in end-of-year exams often requires students to memorise 50 or more pages of notes for each subject for each exam. The amount of content that a pupil can remember impacts on what they write in these exams and, by extension, the marks they receive, which makes the act or process of memorising a set of notes extremely important.
The first step to memorising a large quantity of information is simply paying attention to what it is the students are attempting to take in. This step is the easiest in the process, but interestingly the one that most learners have the greatest difficulty with, as they often find themselves studying whilst surrounded by a range of distractions.
Research shows that these distractions serve to limit the amount of information that students can remember, recall and use in an exam and therefore how they perform. As such, TV, radio, music, younger siblings, phones, text messages, YouTube and the latest photos or updates on Facebook should be seen not just as distractions, but as the causes of lost marks.
Because almost everything is more fun than study, the temptation to keep disruptions within easy reach can be too much for most learners. Pupils will revise at a desk, but then have Facebook open on the computer in front of them.
Some learners will attempt to delude themselves by having an alternate browser page open and Facebook hidden from sight. But sure enough, after five or 10 minutes, their self-control collapses and they open the Facebook window to see what’s happened in the last few minutes (the answer is normally not a lot). The same goes for those students who sit with phones on their desk, checking Twitter constantly or picking it up as soon as a message is received. If distractions are nearby, they will win!
The fact is that every device with a screen has an agenda for us: to spend as much time on them as possible. The key is to know when to get rid of these distractions and when to harness them.
When revising, students have two types of work to do: high-powered and low-powered brain work. For high-powered brain work, like memorising notes and practice papers, students need to remove all distractions. That means not only is the phone off, it is in another room. It’s the same with the TV and even the computer, assuming it isn’t being used for completing study. Wherever possible, all that students should have in their study environment is a desk, a lamp and their notes. For top tips on what to tell parents and students looking to create the perfect study environment see the box below.
Outside of these high-powered revision sessions, social media can have a positive impact on learning outcomes. For example, students who find it difficult to self-motivate can sign up for the Elevate Study Buddy Twitter feed, which provides them with reminders, structure and guidance to assist their revision programmes. Unlike a nagging parent or an unreliable real-life study pal, students that sign up for the Study Buddy receive two weeks of concerted support across the critical Easter holiday revision period.
Advice is easy to digest and act on (as you’d expect from 140 characters). It reminds students of the techniques and strategies that they have learned, but are likely to have discarded as pre-exam stress takes root.
Tweets are sometimes simple suggestions, such as: “Goal for today is one practice question with your books by your side. Tomorrow, one more with no book.” Others offer advice, including: “If you’ve been working for an hour, it’s time to take a break. Back at the desk in 30 minutes!” or “It’s 8pm. Chill out now and we’ll see you at 8.30am at your desk!” And others are motivational, such as: “If revision is getting you down, remind yourself of your goal. That’s why you’re doing this!”
As well as providing tips and techniques, Twitter also provides the opportunity to ask a specific study question. Great when you’ve exhausted all other options. You can also ask for help from previous students and the wider community to provide support. Which is great when you’ve run out of ideas.
The best thing is, the tweets are written by Elevate’s presenters, who are all young, recently finished top students – and that works because they were doing holiday revision last year!
Top study environment tips for parents and students
1 Separate core study from life
Students should find a space in which study can be removed from the hustle and bustle of life at home. This location might be their bedroom, a study or simply a room as far away from the TV as possible.
2 Work at a desk
Our ability to pay attention is based not only on the disruptions around us, but also on our physical state. Often the environment in which we work has a direct impact on our physical state, the obvious example being pupils doing homework on their bed or lying down on a couch. Unfortunately, if students are lying down, their bodies will begin to go into sleep mode and their attention levels decrease (take reading a book in bed and drifting off mid-page as the best example). The same thing happens when learners are studying in a prone position.
Study is rarely fun, to the point that any object within easy reach will automatically become worthy of attention and serve as a distraction. Students should remove these distractions by getting rid of all objects on or near their desk.
4 Take regular breaks
Because attention is tied to our physical condition, it is important that students take regular breaks as well. In order to ensure that a study break doesn’t turn into another set of endless distractions, pupils should master the art of the power break, a five- to 10-minute time-out in which they might go outside, kick a ball, do some press-ups, make a cup of tea, or anything else which gets them up and about. What a power break does not consist of is sitting down to watch TV or jumping on the computer, because it becomes so hard to return to the books when we change activity like this.
5 Temporary blocks
If students are still finding it difficult to tear themselves away from Facebook, YouTube and other online distractions, a number of apps can provide a temporary reprieve. For those using a Microsoft operating system on their computers, a programme called Cold Turkey (www.getcoldturkey.com) is available while Self Control (www.macupdate.com/app/mac/31289/selfcontrolCached) provides the same service for Apple users. Both programmes allow you to block certain websites for a specified period of time.
James Righetti is from study skills provider Elevate Education W: www.elevateeducation.com