By Tom Stafford, lecturer in psychology and cognitive science, University of Sheffield.

Even the most dedicated study plan can be undone by a failure to understand how human memory works… As a psychologist who studies learning and memory, I know quite a few scientifically informed revision tips… But even the best advice can be useless if you don’t realise why it works.

Understanding one fundamental principle of human memory can help you avoid wasting time studying the wrong way. This is it: we’re drawn to ways of studying that feel good but are actually quite poor at helping us learn.

Here is the first of some crucial pieces of advice we’ll be sharing over the coming weeks for anyone studying for an exam, or trying to learn something new.

Test, don’t recognise

The most common form of study is the one that gives “revision” its name—literally just looking at the thing you want to learn again. The problem with this is that we mistake our ability to recognise something for an ability to recall it.

Recognition and recall are different psychological processes. Recognition is a much easier task—all you have to do is look at something in your environment and generate the correct feeling of familiarity (like when you look at your revision notes and think “I’m sick of looking at these”).

But in your exam you don’t get marks for things being familiar, you get marks for recalling relevant information and using it to answer the question. Even powerful feelings of familiarity don’t guarantee you can recall the information.

Prove this to yourself by picking your favourite song, one with lyrics you’ve heard a thousand times. Try singing the lyrics from start to finish and you quickly realise that even a loving familiarity doesn’t mean you can recall the lyrics. If someone had asked, you might have said that of course you knew the lyrics. But you’d be using “knew” in the sense of recognised, not in the crucial sense of being able to recall them in full.

So, don’t practise recognition in your revision—you need to practice retrieving from memory, not just generating an improved feeling of familiarity.

This exerpt is from the article, The way you’re revising may let you down in exams—and here’s why’. It appeared in the UK newspaper, The Guardian, May 7 2016.

Illustration by Sophie Wolfson.

Or, here’s the link to this article and others in this series: