Everyone has their own exam revision story of stress or failure. Whether it was an exhausting all-nighter, or the time you prepared for one exam question, but were asked another. Perhaps these experiences are why we are uniquely keen to understand better how to prepare students for exams (both teachers and parents)?

Despite the good intentions of teachers everywhere, pupils prove all too human, repeating the mistakes of the generations that have come before them.

We may now have an array of evidence from cognitive science about effective study strategies to steer our instruction (most typically from university age students, but not exclusively). We have tips aplenty (my most popular blog is ‘Top 10 Tips for Revision’). And yet, students still struggle to revise successfully; teachers still struggle to support what is a complex learning process.

Perhaps we need to face head-on the all-too-predictable reasons why students routinely fail with revision. In doing so, we may better understand how to mitigate these flaws and foibles. Here are 5 prominent reasons for revision failure: 

1. Students are routinely overconfident about what they have learnt, revised, and remembered. Students are human. They get through the day by possessing a little too much confidence in what they know and can do. They routinely display unreliable judgements of learning (JoL) and a deceptive feeling of knowing the content being studied, even from the mere act of recalling some of itCan they accurately predict their exam performance? Afraid not. Alas, the lowest performing students tend to make the least accurate predictions. 

2. Students can struggle to manage their time and their technology. For teenagers in particular, the part of the brain that regulates planning is in some turmoil and self-control is a struggle. The mere presence of their mobile phone (never mind their mates’ messages firing through) can inhibit learning. A quick check of your socials is an easy thief of time, not to mention the potential negative impact on sleep. Students, even with some advice, find it hard to stick to revision plans and schedules, as well as staying off their devices.

3. Even if students are taught to know better, they respond to deadlines and cram their revision too near the exam. Low performing students may do more all-nighters before an exam (which may be doubly bad if sleep is an essential prerequisite for remembering), than their higher performing peers, but *all* students love a deadline. This all-too-human trait to procrastinate is as natural as exam nerves. You can teach students about spacing out their study, but that doesn’t mean they’ll do it. All too often, the urgency of a deadline is the driver to inspire revision. 

4. Students who have been taught how to revise still don’t apply it in practice. Researchers, Hartwig and Dunlosky, asked university students the question: ‘Do you study the way you do because somebody taught you to study that way?’ 64% of students answered ‘no’ (with 80% answering similarly in another study). Students are a stubborn bunch! Strategies can be based on rigorous research, be subject specific, and plain super, but that still doesn’t mean they get used routinely well by students.

5. Students can be taught to use specific revision tools that can prove helpful, like flashcards for self-testing, and still use them badly! I love flashcards. I promoted them over highlighters in the hope of more effective revision routines. Problematically though, pupils drop flashcards too early(overconfidence once more) and they often just re-read flashcards, rather than undertake more effortful (and effective) self-testing. 

Teachers, and parents, could be forgiven for contemplating giving up in the face of so many barriers. And yet, we plough on, boats against the current, helping students wade through the travails of revision and managing their exam stresses. 

Ben Newmark wrote a helpful Twitter thread this week characterising how we may better approach revision (see here). And yet, despite our best efforts, we must recognise the limits of our students’ memory, their natural inclinations, and very human limitations. 

Let’s end by recognising that what is taught is not easily recalled and what revision strategies are instructed are typically not enacted either. When it comes to revision, by better understanding the worst, we may go on to help prepare to do their best. 

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