The aim of this page is to explore the processes involved in revision to potentially make learning more fun and effective. It will look at the following areas:
- what is revision - learning, revising, and remembering
- effective, interactive learning strategies
- using experience both clinical and previous knowledge
- planning and preparation: what, how and when to revise
What is revision?
Revision is revisiting or learning new information i.e. medical and/or dental knowledge. Its purpose is to make learned knowledge accessible so that it can be demonstrated in the examination. It often involves new learning, i.e. gaining new knowledge. It also involves information processing i.e. processing the information so that it is understood and useful. Finally, it involves using your memory to retain and recall the information.
Memory is a much-researched mechanism that still eludes complete understanding. However, we do know it involves effective information processing, storage, retention, and recall. We remember best if we understand it, and we remember things in many different ways: for example:) classification (grouping information); association (linking information together); elaboration of a topic by adding other dimensions, i.e. making up a story; and exaggeration using humour or outrageous associations. These strategies personalise the learning and therefore more memorable. Rote learning (learning by heart) can also be effective when there is little understanding but is limited in its application. For more information on memory see Additional Resources.
Learning and memory are closely connected. They both work best if people have processed the information in a way that suits the individual. However, the three channels to learn and remember are: through gaining understanding and using logic; and multisensory learning (using all the senses), and practice i.e. using clinical experience.
If you want to find out a bit more about theories of learning, have a look at the additional materials and resources and references
Do you know how you process information effectively?
Some people are aware that they can get information quickly through visual stimulus such as pictures or diagrams. Others feel they learn best when they are listening or reading material. However, it is not true that people have a fixed learning style. People learn different knowledge and skills in different ways, and in different contexts. It is important to remember that multisensory learning is the most interactive and effective. Multi-sensory learning is using all your senses, or as many as you can: seeing, hearing, saying, doing, tasting, and smelling. Many people just read and hope to absorb sufficient information and this does work for some people. However, as a general rule is it more effective if the information is reprocessed into a variety of different formats that they find personally accessible e.g. Bullet point notes, mind maps, flash cards etc. This is an important part of the revision process.
How do you revise? Many people developed revision strategies through school, such as using mind maps, and annotating illustrations, but for various reasons stop using them. However, if these strategies worked in the past then they are likely to be more effective than just reading and doing questions, which is how people are advised to revise when there is a shortage of time. So, think about how you can make your revision more effective by answering the questions in the box below.
Try answering these questions
Now try and think about how effective your strategies are and any changes you could make.
1 - EFFECTIVE AND INTERACTIVE LEARNING STRATEGIES
Remember revision should be a process of revisiting information. If something has not yet been learned, it cannot be revised, so you need to decide which you are doing, though some of the strategies might be the same. Just reading notes or exam questions is often a passive recognition process, as you see the text again, recognise it, and therefore think you know it. But then find you cannot recall it without the text as a prompt. Therefore, it is important to engage in active practice of developing understanding and then practise recall.
Often the favoured method of revision is to do question banks, particularly as others will tell you that this is their strategy. There are some people who can revise in this form, as in fact they engage very actively with the questions, but for many it is not effective as they are not using them to learn. Learning requires more engagement with the material than just working through the questions.
Remember the key is to be as active as possible whilst learning. As the following table illustrates reading, listening, and watching are relatively passive activities. Being involved doing something with the information you are learning is much more likely to help you retain it.
Source: Adapted from Dale (1969)
So, when you are reading information think about other things you can do to process that information. The diagram below illustrates some more active approaches to reading which aid recall.
Some example revision strategies to try:
- Write a fictional patient case using the topic and condition you have chosen to learn or revise
- Create flashcards on the material in the text. These are cards with a word or phrase on one side and explanations on the back
- Create a diagrammatic summary of the material in the text e.g. mind map, flow chart, cartoon etc.
- Create a family of diseases
- Write your own exam questions. Try both MCQs and other types of questions.
- Illustrate a text with pictures
- Write a quiz
Can you recall the information better?
2 - USING CLINICAL EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE
We mentioned above that using clinical experience is one of the best ways to recall information. It is a huge resource for learning and recall. Most doctors and dentists recognise that if they have seen a patient with a specific condition, it is easier to recall most of the information associated with it. Treating patients is the ultimate in multi-sensory learning. If you do not have a ‘real’ patient, try making up patients with a whole range of clinical conditions. It can be a very effective tool, as it draws on your medical expertise.
Find 2 or 3 colleagues who are further through their exams than you and ask them in detail about the learning strategies they use. Don’t be content with ‘I just do question banks’ as an answer. If that is all you get, find someone else to talk to, until you have gathered a nice list of useful techniques. Use their clinical experience too!
For some further tips look at Richmond, Cranfield, and Cooper (2019) Study tips for medical students (in the reference list).
3 - REVISION PLANNING
Knowing how you revise best is important, but planning is another essential part of the revision process. Planning can be defined as identifying a course of action to achieve a goal. In this context it means you can decide what to do, when and how best to do it i.e. what strategy to use. It is well documented that planning improves performance. We all plan to some extent as part of our daily lives, for example, what to wear or what to eat. Nearly all doctors and dentists have a plan or outline of their day and most of them will have an overview of their next patient, because it helps them to take information in quickly and then make decisions.
But do you plan your revision?
- Some people do not plan their revision at all. They feel it is a waste of time, or they do not know where to start, or they are too frightened as it may reveal how much have they have to do
- Some people plan but do not stick to it, and it makes them feel anxious
- Some people make a flexible plan and achieve their goals
Why should you plan? Planning revision ensures the best use of time, energy, and resources. It is ineffective to revise when tired, so setting realistic achievable goals is more effective. It ensures much of the knowledge is refreshed and accessible, and it improves recall, therefore it increases confidence. Flexible planning can decrease anxiety as people feel more in control and they can see they are building their knowledge base if they tick things off as they go along. If planning seems too daunting, try, and see it as a map to guide you through a forest of knowledge
If you do plan, what sort of planner are you?
Do you work little and often, or totally immerse yourself?
- Analyse what you must do?
- Make a list of topics?
- Make a timetable – daily, weekly?
- Tick it off when it is covered?
Make a plan that suits you and how you work best
How best to plan – where to start
Planning involves a lot of processes. It involves accurate task analysis. Using the 5 W’s can be a good starting point
What do I have to learn? Why am I learning it? When is the best time? Where is the best place? Who can help? and How- i.e. is the best strategy for this topic?
It is important to remember that the plan is a guide (and unlikely to be achieved) and will inevitably change with life occurrences, but it is still a structure on which to anchor the learning. Furthermore, research suggests that those who plan are more likely to achieve their goals
For a detailed planning strategy see the additional resources.
Be realistic in what you are trying to achieve
- Assess what you know, don’t know and need to know
- Make a plan – use outlook or a calendar
- Evaluate and change it
Beware a rigid plan, it is likely to fail. Revision plans should be flexible and ever-changing, they are a guide, and where to go next
Remember! Get enough rest and relaxation. Your brain needs a break to refresh itself
- Think strategically and be goal orientated and flexible in your planning
- Use your clinical experience
- Be as interactive and multisensory as possible when revising
- Check what you have missed and but celebrate what you have achieved!
- Try and enjoy the studying. Remember - more learning contributes to a greater knowledge base and more confidence in clinical settings