The saying “eat your own dog food” isn’t taken from a government pamphlet for dealing with austerity measures (any savings are likely to be offset by the cost of breath mints). It’s a metaphor which suggests that you should have first-hand experience of what you sell.
I was able to go from never having opened a textbook to ‘C’ grade level in under ten hours of total study time.
When I stumble across different learning techniques I often wonder how effective they are, but I rarely get the chance to use them for real. I don’t want to recommend methods that I haven’t used myself, so I decided to pick a GCSE subject* then try out a few ideas whilst timing and grading myself. I chose Psychology, because the subject interests me and I’d never studied it before.
Using basic techniques that are available to anyone, I was able to go from never having opened a textbook to ‘C’ grade level in under ten hours of total study time.
How can this be possible?
A good textbook
A good textbook is pivotal. In high school I never even considered that some textbooks might suit me much better than others, but if we’re looking for speed we need to be more discerning.
I was searching for something that was engagingly written (not too stuffy and formal), stuck closely to the syllabus, gave specific advice about tackling the exam and had lots of approachable self-testing material. Because I wanted to use the Chapter Summary Quiz technique, I was careful to choose one containing chapter summaries.
To make sure that I had the best coverage possible, I also borrowed an alternative textbook from the library. This itself can be a hugely beneficial strategy, giving alternate explanations of tricky concepts and plenty of extra questions for practise.
A better basic technique
If I distracted you for a few moments, then asked you to tell me what the last paragraph was about, you’d struggle to answer. Hardly a revelation, but consider the implications of this for a moment.
Your average GCSE student is going to spend many, many hours hunched over their textbook. It looks studious and feels productive, but the actual retention of material is abysmal when you consider the time spent. The plus side is that just fixing this one area will make you far more efficient.
We don’t retain much of what we read because reading is a fairly passive activity. We’re not engaging with the material; we’re just casually processing it. So what’s the alternative to reading? Putting the textbook through a blender and drinking it? Tell me! I demand answers!
Your average GCSE student is going to spend many, many hours hunched over their textbook. It looks studious and feels productive, but the actual retention of material is abysmal.
Active reading techniques have massively better recall rates and take only slightly longer than normal reading. There are a number of different ones but I chose SQ3R as it’s the most well known and it can be learnt in a couple of minutes.
Working one chapter at a time
My strategy in high school was be just to pound the textbook, reading it from cover to cover. This is a tempting approach because it’s straight forward, but it’s also lousy for retention.
Short term memories fade quickly and are easily displaced by new information. This means that by the time we reach the end of the book we’ll have already forgotten most of the detail from the early chapters, even if we are using active reading.
The defence against this is to continually use self-testing to keep all that information in our heads and try to push it into long term memory. This process needs to be fast because it has to happen alongside our active reading efforts and cover the material faster than we can forget it.
Consolidating material into long term memory with self-testing
In addition to using the questions contained in both textbooks, I used the Chapter Summary Quiz technique. This involves photocopying the chapter summaries from a textbook and using correction fluid to blank out key words, giving me a ‘fill in the blanks’ quiz for every chapter.
Actually filling in the blanks can be time consuming, so I used a slight variant. Where I was totally confident that I knew the missing word, I would simply say it out loud. Where I had any doubt, I would write in what I thought and, where I had no idea, I would put a question mark in the space. This change meant that as my knowledge improved I spent progressively less time on these quizzes. After taking the quizzes a couple of times I could test myself on a chapter in under a couple of minutes.
Part of the GCSE Psychology exam revolves around knowing a selection of core studies and theories in detail. Because the chapter summaries would exclude the level of detail I needed, it was a simple matter to just photocopy those core sections (a couple of pages per chapter) and create additional ‘fill in the blanks’ quizzes for those too.
I had intended to use digital flashcards in order to memorise the key terms in each chapter and had found some related sets on the Memrise website. Unfortunately when I checked through them, some entries were incorrect.
My quizzes covered the majority of these key terms anyway, but I would have liked to target them with flashcards. If I had a document scanner available I would have used character recognition software to convert the glossary from the back of my textbook into a text document so that I could quickly create my own digital flashcards with accurate definitions.
Pushing material into long term memory
Once we’ve created self-testing materials we can use a process called rehearsal to ensure that we don’t forget what we’ve learned. This simply involves retaking quizzes at gradually increasing intervals.
I began my rehearsal process by revisiting the quizzes every hour until my retention was high, then switched to going through them before bed and in the morning. This sounds like a lot of work. But remember that these quizzes are designed to be fast and after a couple of goes, they were very fast indeed. I was spending less than half an hour per session and covering the whole book.
Despite these efforts some material just wouldn’t stick. I couldn’t remember which psychologist was responsible for which experiment or theory. At this point I created some simple mnemonics to help me remember the tough ones. It took less than fifteen minutes to do this. Here are some examples of what I came up with:
Theory of attachment – Bowlby
A man in a bowler hat with babies clinging to his arms
Effect of uniforms on obedience – Bickman
A police badge with the name ‘Bickman’
Gender case study – Diamond and Sigmundson
A man with a diamond dangling from his zipper
Perception experiment set in a field – Harber and Levin
A ship and a pair of jeans in a field
Effect of pets on adolescents – Van Houtten and Jarvis
Denise Van Outen wearing Ironman armour, walking a dog (Ironman’s computer is called Jarvis)
Theory of cognitive development – Piaget
A pig with an enormous brain
Cultural theory of cognitive development – Vygotsky
An ethnically diverse group of children on skis with the letter ‘v’ on their shirts
Some information would also get muddled up. I would occasionally get similar terms confused, such as cross sectional study and co-relational study. When this happened I would ask myself what made them different, referring back to the textbook if I needed to until they were clear in my mind.
A few thoughts
This routine was enough to get me to C grade in less than ten hours study time. Does this mean that GCSE Psychology is too easy? I hardly think so. With the right technique it’s possible to quickly memorise almost anything. The value of information doesn’t change in relation to how fast you can stuff it into your brainbox.
I measured myself by taking a past exam paper and checking my answers against the marking scheme. The sharp eyed amongst you will have spotted the problem with this – I’m hardly unbiased – and there are plenty of other caveats too: I’m not a high school student, the questions are of a certain type (expressing knowledge rather than problem solving), I’m already peripherally interested in psychology, and so on and so forth.
None of this really matters. The point is not whether someone can revise for a certain exam in a given time – twenty hours would still be an order of magnitude better than an aimless approach – but that our ability to pass exams is severely limited by poor technique.
You can easily prove this to yourself by mastering a single chapter of a GCSE Psychology textbook in just an hour of your time. The experience can radically change how you view and approach revision.
Here’s how it breaks down for a single chapter:
Active reading: 30mins
Answering the questions from the textbook: 10mins
Rehearsal one hour later: 5mins
Rehearsal two hours later: 3mins
Rehearsal at bedtime: 3mins
Rehearsal in the morning: 2mins
Rehearsal at bedtime: 2mins
Rehearsal in the morning: 2mins
Rehearsal at bedtime: 2mins
At the end of this routine you should have a pretty solid grasp of the material. You’ll also realise that it takes very little time to maintain your knowledge and that you now only need to rehearse every couple of days, rather than every day.
You may be asking yourself, “how can I get from ‘C’ grade to ‘A’ grade?” and “what techniques are good for other subjects?”. Both excellent questions. Well done. I’ll cover those in another post.
*GCSEs are the standard high school qualification in England. Students take them at the age of sixteen and they’re fundamental to determining which colleges and careers are open to them.
My book is now available! You can read about it here.