Revising Online

(Updated 1st May to fix broken link)

I’m a big fan of paper and pen, I have to admit. I can’t read a non-fiction book without a pencil in my hand, ready to add notes in margins. Revision should, I feel, start by writing out some ideas, perhaps headings or main nodes of a concept map. But many students disagree and some find it very helpful to use resources online, either ‘live’ or downloadable software. This post will list a few ideas to get you started – please let me know, hypothetical reader, if you can suggest any more – and in time this will become a page all of its own.

Concept/Mind Maps

If you like mind mapping, there are many resources you could check out. One company which likes the idea of visual, rather than written notes and revision is Model Learning These different layouts may be useful in a range of circumstances, to explore, explain and revise links between concepts. I also like the information the Open University have made available at  Visual Techniques for Revision. You might also want to check out http://www.mind-mapping.co.uk/

Flash card junkies

You can’t go far wrong with a stack of 5×3 index cards and a pen. If you want to turn this into an electronic equivalent, I currently have three suggestions – but they all require a little work.

Quizlet is a website that allows you to define your own flashcards, linking any two ideas together. They can be definitions, translations, symbol and unit, whatever. Once defined, they can be shared with other users (one of my long-term projects will be to start making sets of these for my students to use) and turned into tests, games and other activities. You may find some useful sets there already and if not, making them yourself is a good first step in revision. 

Memoriser is a freeware utility (translation: free to download and use) which lets you define the facts you want to learn, questions you want to answer or anything else. It can then be set to run in the background while on a computer, asking you random questions at preset intervals.

The third is something you may already have, but it’s an interesting application of Powerpoint. You can save a slideshow as a folder of jpeg (image) files. Many mobile phones can now store and display such files, and you can often run them as a slideshow. This means a revision powerpoint – ideally clear slides with small amounts of text – can be saved to your phone and played back at odd moments, in bus queues or while waiting at the dentists. Most students won’t carry around revision cards, but will need death threats to be parted from their mobile phone.

I’m sure there are many more available – please drop me a line if I’ve missed out your favourites!

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Revision – or lack of it

It constantly amazes me that students seem completely clueless when it comes to revision. Even bright, able young people seem not to realize that learning things for a test – whether facts, processes or key vocabulary – takes effort. I am so tired to repeating that “Reading is not revision.” For anyone who’s interested, here’s a few ideas about making revision rather more effective than simply flicking through a text book or folder.

To make revision work properly, it needs to be active. Ignoring all the neuroscience behind this – after all, this isn’t a Brain Gym Pseudoscience seminar – it simply means that the more ways we think about or process something, the more likely we are to remember it. With my students I use the idea of following the MORSE code to make sure revision is active and, hopefully, effective.

Mnemonics are mental shortcuts that help recall a fact, sequence or method. Examples might include “How I Wish I Could Calculate Pi” (How=3, I=1, Wish+4 etc) or “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain.”

Organising the facts we need to know in a specific way, whether chronological, lists, groups of five or whatever can be very effective. Drawing concept maps or dividing facts into advantages and disadvantages are both ways to organise knowledge and create links we find easier to recall later.

Repetition is a method many students use. It is most effective when we vary the method we use to learn repeated facts, perhaps transferring information from one format to another (paragraph to bullet points, concept map to list of questions etc)

Simplifying what is needed can really help, especially to start with. Instead of sentences, choose key words. Summarise the facts so there is less to learn, and so that ‘trigger’ words remind you of greater levels of detail.

Extending what you understand works best by trying to apply what you know to new situations. When a teacher asks students to use an equation to work out a series of problems, this gives practice (repetition) and encourages better understanding of the uses or limitations of a method. There are many ways to extend yourself, such as writing questions for someone else, picking the ten most important words and so on.

Of course many of these ideas overlap with each other. What I constantly find surprising is the sheer number of students who don’t use any of them, so limiting themselves to reading the same words, in the same order, time and again. And as we know – reading isn’t revision.