Why revision is like music practice or sports training
One thing I hear repeatedly from students is that the revision techniques they have tried ‘don't work'. When I dig a bit deeper, they'll say something like,
“I made a couple of flashcards but they didn't help.”
I then ask, “How many times did you look at them?”
And they'll say, “Oh, a couple of times.”
In my head I then give a great big sigh.
In this conversation there is a fundamental misunderstanding about a) how the human memory works and b) the amount of effort it takes to truly know your stuff before you go into an exam hall.
In this post, I'm going to explain how you or your child can up their revision effectiveness by thinking about other skills in their lives that they've developed: music and sport.
Why music and sport?
My little girl is learning to play the piano. She is eight years old. At one stage, quite early on in her piano studies, she used to sit down, play the tune she'd been told to practice once and say that was practice done.
The problem was, every day she would slow down at the tricky bits and race through the easy bits. She never evened out the tune or improved her technical proficiency in the bits that she found harder. She just played the piece through, at varying speeds depending on how difficult she found each bit, and then ‘finished'.
I knew, from my own days of learning music, that this wasn't how you got better. I got to grade 8 on the oboe so I learned a thing or two about what works when you're improving your musical skills. When I was studying the oboe I would spend ages focusing on the bits of each piece that I had trouble with so that I could give the impression that I could play the entire piece with ease. Which I could, once I'd put the necessary practice in.
I showed my daughter the need to break each piece down and focus on the difficult bits, and ever since then her musical skills have developed a lot more rapidly.
When I was at university I trained with the Cambridge University Women's Rugby team. I was totally rubbish. I would tackle people then stop, apologise and help them onto their feet. But, I did see that the principles I'd learned studying music also applied to sport.
In training, they would teach us a skill e.g. passing the ball and we would then have to practice it over and over again before we were allowed to use it in a match situation. The same happened with tackling, rucking, mauling etc. You never tried to do something in the match situation until you'd practised it many times over. In practice, you would also have to add the different drills together so that you could seamlessly switch from one skill to another.
So, what specific lessons can we learn from music and sport for revision? I've got three here for you today.
Lesson 1: Break it down
The first thing you need to do is break down the skill you're trying to learn (in the case of music or sport) or the knowledge you're trying to memorise (in the case of revision) and focus on the bits that are the hardest.
With music, it would have been that bar full of semi-quavers, a really tricky rhythm or a big jump in notes. In sport, it might be a tricky manoeuvre with your hands or feet, like learning to serve in tennis.
The important thing is that you focus on the bit that you're finding difficult.
I talk about this in my video and blog post on flashcards – how, using the Leitner box method, you select the flashcards that you're finding it trickiest to memorise and focus more of your attention on those.
Lesson 2: Slow it down before you speed it up
With that tricky and very fast passage of semi-quavers I would have really slowed it down before I could speed it up. I needed to be sure that my fingering and timing was accurate and that my brain had learned the necessary patterns before I could speed it up and play it with any kind of accuracy.
The same goes for revision. If you're struggling to answer an exam question within the time allowed in the exam, the important thing is to understand the technique and the formula required to answer that particular exam question. If you slow it down and practice it giving yourself plenty of thinking time, you will become more fluent. You can then speed it up when you're more familiar with what you need to do.
The same goes for memorising information. When I was learning something like a process e.g. how the kidneys work, or how the water cycle works, I would strip it down to it's basics and make sure I knew and understood that. Then, I would add detail in at a rate at which I could retain it. So many students I see get bogged down and lost in the detail because they can't see the bigger picture or the ‘story' linking it all together.
So, slow it down or strip away the detail, before you speed it up and add in that detail.
Lesson 3: Spaced practice
I've recently read a book called The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More By Doing Less by Dr Christine Carter. In it, she talks about one a study by K Anders Ericsson where he found that truly great musicians not only practised a lot more, they also rested a lot more than their good but not so elite peers. Violinists who were destined to become professional soloists practised for 3.5 hours per day, and spaced their practice across the day into three sessions. Violinists who weren't destined for the dizzy heights of their profession practised for 1.4 hours per day, all in one go.
This highlights the importance of repeatedly coming back to things and working on them in short bursts, with spaces in between. I see this in my daughter's piano book. The G major scale was introduced in the first book and it keeps cropping up again with exercises that develop her skills with it further and further.
Students should be doing the same thing with their revision. For example, by learning about something in class, coming home and making a few flashcards about it, reading over the flashcards and testing themselves on them on the next day, and then returning to them next week, next month etc. This will result in much better memorisation than making flashcards for an entire topic all in one sitting one week before the exam and only looking at them again briefly the night before the exam.
What to do next
Now, you should go away and think about how you can use the three tips I've shared in this post in your own revision, or help your child incorporate it into their revision. Those three tips are:
- Break it down
- Slow it down before you speed it up
- Space your practice
But, I want you to remember what I said at the beginning. This isn't just about how human memory works, it's also about effort and consistency.
I didn't get to Grade 8 oboe because I have some great musical talent. In fact, I'm pretty sure that some of my music teachers despaired of why I wanted to keep on learning because I didn't have any real aptitude – and I still struggle to tell whether something's in tune or not. Instead, I got there because I put the effort in. I worked consistently, on a daily basis, from the age of 9 to the age of 17 to get that grade.
The same goes for my five A grades at A Level. That did not happen by accident. In fact, I've never been so intentional about anything in my life before or since. Every day I got up and put the effort in. Hours and hours of it. I went over and over the things I found most difficult until I both understood them and could remember them, and I didn't give up until I'd got it. I even did things like choosing the bit of chemistry I found most difficult to understand (electrolysis, if you're interested) as the topic for my coursework so that I could spend more time on it to fully understand it for my exam.
Do you need my help with this?
If you're a student reading this and you're thinking, “This is great, Lucy, but I still don't know how to put this into practice,” or, if you're a parent and you're thinking, “I can see how sensible this is, but I don't know how I'm going to get my teen to do this,” I can help.
The Extraordinaries Club is my online membership programme for families where I show you how to study and revise effectively. You also get my one to one support in the on-site community and on the weekly coaching calls. Come and check it out – I'd love to start helping you today.
Lucy on twitter: @LucyCParsons
Contact Lucy by email: firstname.lastname@example.org