Student perspective: Using active recall

Shraddha, the author of the blog postby Shraddha Sriraman, English and History student and Bristol Futures Advocate

In this post, I’ll share my experience of using active recall. See my previous post for “How to add active recall to your revision toolkit”

A Students Perspective

Pros

  • This method of learning has been hugely beneficial in spreading out my workload so I can work on topics bit by bit, instead of being faced with having to read an entire chapter all in one go (trust me – that is NOT fun)
  • I’ve been able to remember information for longer, so it hasn’t just been cramming for the exam and forgetting information as soon as its done!
  • It feels like an efficient way of learning, and I learn exactly what I need to know
  • I’ve found that I get less distracted, and hence procrastinate less, when I employ active recall techniques. Perhaps this is because I’m actively thinking about the task at hand, instead of passively learning information ( which can be boring!)

Cons

  • It does take quite a long time to make flashcards / questions for yourself! But I guess… no pain, no gain!
  • Sometimes when you repeat flashcards often, you can pre-empt the question and answer, leading to the same issues as passive learning

Making active recall work for you

  1. Basing your questions on the learning objectives

By basing your flashcards / test questions on your learning objectives, you know that the information you are retrieving is relevant and going to be beneficial come exam day!

  1. Knowing when you need to take a break

The annoying part of active recall learning is that it feels like hard work. Though the research shows the wracking your brain to retrieve information leads to stronger memory connections further down the line (Butler, A. C., 2010), making those connections in the first place is quite draining. Hence, its really important to ensure you space out your revision schedule to avoid burn out!

  1. Don’t get disheartened when you don’t know the answers

This one took me a while to figure out. When I used passive learning methods in the past, I’d learn all the information before tackling the question, so I’d vaguely know how I’d approach giving an answer. When I switched to active recall, I often had no idea how to go about answering the question in front of me which – though it forced me to step out of my comfort zone and apply my learning – was slightly disheartening. The key point to remember is that all of this is still revision and for your own learning. It really is okay to make mistakes at this stage- its just a new learning point!

References

Butler, A. C. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(5), 1118.

Have you tried active recall? What are the pros and cons for you? Add your comments to the discussion below.

 

Student perspective: How to read academic articles without getting overwhelmed

Helen, the author of the blog postby Helen March, English and History student and Bristol Futures Advocate

When I first started my degree as an English and history student, I found the prospect of reading academic articles incredibly daunting. I struggled for a long time to get to grips with the language used, and learning what parts of an article were important to note down, wasting time writing every point the academic made. However, after two years of study, I have picked up some habits which will hopefully help you avoid the same pitfalls and allow you to take the most important information from an article.

So here are my top five tips to avoid getting lost in academic articles:

1. Read the conclusion after the introduction and before the rest of the article

This will help you to navigate your way through the writer’s argument. Although sometimes mentioned in the introduction, the general argument may not be clear throughout the whole article. However, reading the end means you can better understand the direction of an author’s argument before knowing exactly how they get there. If you understand the point an academic is trying to make, you can interrogate it more effectively in your work. Understanding the main argument is key when reading academic work!

Bonus tip! – The academic will sometimes note their key points in their conclusion, helpful for making subtitles to categorise your notes.

2. Read the first and last sentence of a paragraph before diving into the body of it

More often than not, this will give you a good idea of the point being made and whether it is relevant to the research you are doing. Sometimes only a small part of an article will be useful to your research, so sifting through irrelevant information will save you time in the long run.

3. Don’t get bogged down by jargon

Academic language can be complex and the sophistication of language within an article can be overwhelming. For key words you don’t understand, look them up, the oxford english dictionary is your friend! The university has a subscription (oed.com). However, don’t let yourself be entirely consumed by understanding every word within an article, generally only a few will be important. So long as you understand the general gist of a sentence, you will probably be ok! If you are too concerned with understanding every word, it becomes easy to forget the article’s main argument.

4. Just because something sounds sophisticated doesn’t mean it is

Although a quote might look appealing, it may lack actual substance. It’s better to quote and analyse something worded simply but effectively, allowing you to interrogate it in closer detail in your writing.

4. Most importantly, practice!

You won’t learn how to read an article overnight. Although the advice I have given here has hopefully made the prospect of reading academic writing less daunting, it won’t solve all your issues! Academic writing is difficult to understand and the more of it you read the more you learn how to systematically work your way through complex pieces of writing.

Have you got any useful tips for reading articles? Let us know in the comments below!

Student perspective: How to add active recall to your revision toolkit

Shraddha, the author of the blog postby Shraddha Sriraman, English and History student and Bristol Futures Advocate

We all have a favourite method of learning information for an exam , be it reading through a textbook, making aesthetically pleasing notes, spider-diagrams, lists, mindmaps, or even desperately cramming last-minute for an exam (please don’t let this last one be your go-to!). However, moving to university, or getting adjusted with new exam formats trigger us to think about if we’re learning new content in the most effective manner.

Now, figuring out methods that work for each one of us is highly personal, and really depend on your needs as a learner. That being said, decades of research on valuable and diverse learning techniques could help us discover new methods of recalling information! The one discussed in this blog post is all about active recall as a useful method to add to your revision toolkit!

What is Active Recall?

Traditional methods of note taking, such as highlighting notes or watching videos, are based on the idea of placing information from the page into your brain. Active recall spins this on its head, and allows you to learn by retrieving information from your brain and applying it to the question. This is often done by testing yourself, be that via past papers, flashcards, or making your own questions to ‘force’ yourself to actively use information learnt, instead of learning passively.

Methods using Active Recall

  1. Flashcards

Flashcards are a helpful way of summarising notes, whilst testing yourself at the same time. I often have a question on one side, and the answer on the other to employ those helpful active recall skills! Sometimes, I also copy and paste lecture slides with key words blanked out, so I test my recall of key terms. These can be made by hand, or through the use of online applications : such as Anki, Quizlet and more (future blog post coming soon on these!)

  1. Closed Book -‘Blurting’

This is a traditional method of active recall where you shut a book and try and write down what you’ve learnt. Then, go back to the chapter in the book, or your lecture notes and fill in key points you’ve missed out in a different colour to see what you’ve forgotten. Over time, repeating this method leads to higher memory retention of key concepts! I loved this method when studying anatomy and found it easier to draw out a system and then check back at my notes to see what I had missed, instead of passively reading through.

  1. Past Paper Questions

Past paper questions are a fantastic method of actively applying what you’ve learnt!

  1. Make your own questions (based on learning objectives!)

Some courses don’t offer past paper questions, but its just as effective to make your own! This way, you’re pre-empting potential questions that could be asked in the future, as well as allowing to practice active recall.

  1. Teach someone else!

Teaching someone else about a new topic is a fantastic way of processing information and describing it in simple terms. This is a very useful technique and incorporates several levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (a schematic used to describe levels of understanding knowledge, see Figure 1) such as create, analyse and apply. You also don’t have to have another person to teach, a stuffed teddy bear, a plant pot or an imaginary person will do just fine!

 

Triangle diagram with words in ascending order: remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate, create
Figure 1. Blooms taxonomy. Armstrong, P. (2010)

 

References and Helpful Articles on Active Recall

Armstrong, P. (2010). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [18.10.2022] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/

Brainscape “What is Active Recall? How to use it to ace your exams”

Osmosis Blog “Active Recall: The Most Effective High-Yield Learning Technique”

Student perspective: Dealing with online, proctored exams for the first time

Emma, the author of the blog postby Emma Ford, Vet student and Bristol Futures Advocate

But wait, what are proctored exams? 

A proctored exam is a timed exam that is invigilated via software that has access to your camera, microphone, and screen. They aim to prevent cheating during online exams without in person invigilators present.

After doing in person exams my whole academic life, I was really worried about the sudden change to online proctored exams.

I had no idea what a proctored exam was, and the many misconceptions around the time about it just added onto the anxiety. These included “if you look away from the screen for more than twenty seconds you will automatically fail” and “if they can hear any sounds while you’re taking the exam, it’s an automatic failure”, etc. I responded to this by taking every measure possible to ensure that no red flags would be triggered during my exam. I covered everything on my walls, I put signs all around my house saying, “exam in process”, and on our front door, asking my housemates and potential visitors to be quiet. Yet still, despite all these measures, it was only until I got my exam results back that I could finally relax that I had not somehow been mistakenly flagged for cheating. However, now as a proctored exam “survivor”, I can happily say that these proctored exams are really nothing to worry about! As long as you are following the rules, and you take your exams honestly, your exam process should go smoothly.

My current understanding is that any unexpected audio or visuals recorded are flagged by the computer programme, but then they are manually inspected by an actual human being. So, even if your exam gets “flagged”, it does not necessarily mean it will result in a failure, and as long as the “flagged” situation was nothing suspicious, the flag has no detriment to you or to your score.

One of my friend’s flatmates were being loud when she was taking her exam, and she had to get up from her laptop, and yell from her door for her flatmates to be quieter. In one of my exams, I had a postman start knocking vigorously on my window because no one had answered the doorbell to collect their post. I imagine these situations resulted in our exams being flagged but would have very quickly been disregarded as just unfortunate incidents as soon as they were watched by an actual person.

I hope this has eased your mind about proctored exams but if you do have any questions about the rules or technicalities of your exams, I strongly advise you to ask your faculty administration, as it will most likely just ease your mind! Good luck on your exams!

Student perspective: Beating burnout in the final stages of dissertation writing

Jasmin in Royal Fort Gardens holding a printed dissertationby Jasmin Rahman, Cellular and Molecular Medicine student and Bristol Futures Advocate

Perhaps you started working on your dissertation months ago, maybe you started a few weeks ago. Regardless one of the most universal experiences whilst writing your dissertation is the frustration when you’re almost done, yet it still doesn’t ever feel truly finished. The last 2 weeks in February before I submitted my dissertation were so difficult as I felt like the 3 years of my degree culminated in a pretty average dissertation (this wasn’t true!).

During that slump of being unhappy with my progress, I figured out some quick fixes to stay motivated during the last stages of dissertation writing:

1. Track your progress

One of the main things me and my coursemates complained about was how we felt like we were working so hard on editing our dissertation everyday, yet we weren’t making any progress and it always looked exactly the same. But logically this was never true!

Tracking your progress, whether it’s downloading a printable progress tracker from the internet or simply saving a copy of your dissertation from a few days ago can be a practical way to beat the feelings of frustration that nothing is changing.

2. Avoid obsessing over details

For me, obsessing over the tiny details like perfecting my sub-headings was a really convenient excuse to avoid editing the harder sections of my dissertation. Although that definitely isn’t the case for everyone, if you find yourself obsessing for hours over a single sentence – it could be an indication to move on or take a break. My editing process sometimes involved cutting down entire paragraphs, critically considering what your sentence actually adds to the dissertation or sub-section as a whole can be useful in helping to take an evaluative approach whilst editing.

3. Take breaks and time to celebrate accomplishments

It’s definitely a cliché, especially whilst surrounded by friends and coursemates in a similar caffeine-driven push to cross the dissertation finish line. However, that state of complete fixation on finally finishing and the relief you’ll feel when it’s all over is definitely not worth compromising your health! Sometimes taking breaks and time to celebrate your accomplishments (however small) can be very useful in allowing you to come back to your dissertation with fresh eyes – especially useful whilst writing your reflections in the discussion section. So no matter if it’s only an hour break, burnout during dissertation writing is both very common and unfortunately very difficult to bounce back from. So taking some time to ensure your mental wellbeing before your hand-in deadline is both better for your dissertation quality and yourself in the long-term.

I hope this post was helpful and good luck to everyone still writing and congratulations once you hand in – you should all be very proud as it’s such a big achievement!

Student perspective: The art of embracing dispiriting feedback

Photo of Tala, the author of the blog postby Tala Youhana, Law student and Bristol Futures Advocate

You’ve put in the substantial cycles of work, you’re certainly no stranger to long hours and late nights at your designated study spot, and you’ve exhausted all the caffeine in your system in hopes of finally receiving spotless reassuring feedback from your tutors. Nonetheless, the threshold you’ve been working tirelessly to meet, still feels out of reach. If this is you, then here are some healthy reminders to help you cope with and defeat the initial discouragement.

1. Accepting the mark is the first checkpoint

Oftentimes, we attempt to rapidly locate the mark before anything else in the feedback form, because it feels like glowing comments are distorted without a glowing mark. In my first year, I had professors disclose their own experiences with disappointing marks and remind us that such marks are not the be all and end all. Marks only go as far as a submission goes, so don’t let that dissuade you from the fact that you’re at university, because you worked hard to be here. Therefore, accepting the mark as a fair reflection of that particular submission would be a promising first step to moving forward. Ultimately, the larger the improvement, the more to be proud of when you’re done!

2. Interrogating the comments objectively involves personal initiative

Now that you’ve accepted your mark as a fair and accurate reflection of your work, you will be well-equipped to objectively evaluate the feedback. If you identify any issues, you will be able to investigate them further by preparing some questions. After this, you can make use of the many helpful resources available to you such as booking office hours with your tutors, revisiting feedback lectures, and perhaps even swapping papers with a peer to identify key feedback patterns, and ultimately gain a holistic understanding of the feedback given. Asking for help where needed reflects strong personal initiative and is actively encouraged.

3. There’s always room for improvement

No matter how you previously performed, it is advisable to keep your targets at least as high as they were prior to the feedback, if not higher! After all, feedback is far from failure, it is as the playful saying goes, “the breakfast of champions”. By visualising your targets clearly, you are then able to create a solid and detailed plan to improve on any skill gaps which you have encountered. The key point to stress here is that asking for help where you feel any doubts, either by consulting with your tutors or by making use of Study Skills and University resources, is a very important step forward, and one which you should be proud of.

To conclude, kindly note that this method is merely a guide and certainly not the only way of embracing feedback effectively- it is just what has worked for me when I had been hesitant with feedback in the past. The silver lining here is that feedback is meant to be critical, but when used wisely, it’s a chance to start over and progress!

What to expect from an online Study Skills workshop

Photo of Tala, the author of the blog postby Tala Youhana, Law student and Bristol Futures Advocate

Whilst it is now second nature for groups to arrange meetings remotely, this has hardly been common practice for long. In fact, for many, these online venues can still feel like unfamiliar territory. “Is my mic switched on? Will my Wi-Fi hold?”, you probably resonate with these if you are no stranger to using Zoom, Teams, Collaborate etc.

Nonetheless, negative connotations aside, online workshops can have numerous plus-sides that shouldn’t be overlooked, and a good way of experiencing them first-hand is by attending an online study skills workshop. So, what exactly can you expect from an online study skills workshop?

  1. Guidance on using Collaborate

Firstly, the hosts will often assess whether anyone is having any issues with using the platform and are always happy to help if you are! These sessions are often held via Collaborate and login instructions would be provided beforehand.

  1. Unpacking of the intended learning outcomes

To ensure the most productive outcomes for the session, it is common for hosts to assess what participants’ want to achieve by attending the workshop. A slide will normally appear detailing the objective intended outcomes, but feel free to contribute your targets here, as even if the workshop may not wholly deal with them, your contribution would be considered by the team for a future session! 

  1. Lots of questions – no wrong answers

A workshop, unlike a talk or a lecture, is completed only insofar as the participants are responsive with the host- therefore, it is as much your contribution as it is the facilitator’s. Most importantly, it is an environment where you can expect no wrong answers- a safe space to exchange your personal experiences and ideas, because by doing so, it will yield optimum results for you and others in the session. These discussion-based skill-building exercises are unique because they result in a bank of resources and ideas, and it will be up to you to simply find out what works for you!

  1. Plenty of live engagement with the option of anonymity

The unique aspect of an online-based study skills workshop is that tools such as Mentimeter, Padlet, and polls truly shine in this environment. The ability to retain some anonymity throughout the session whilst still being fully engaged makes online study skills workshops unique in sharpening the skills you are looking for. For me, these tools really helped promote reflective and critical engagement with my study habits and routines.

  1. A welcoming environment

I think it’s crucial to reiterate what a friendly and welcoming environment you can expect from these workshops. They are open to all students and are designed in a way that is accessible to those who speak English as foreign language, have learning difficulties, or are still getting started on intensifying a particular skill.

You now, hopefully, have a better idea of what to expect from an online study skills workshop, but the best way to really get that insight, is probably to try it out yourself!

Student Perspective: A Bristol Futures Advocate’s Tale

Photo of Iskandar, the author of the postWe asked Iskandar Bin Suhaimi to reflect on his time as a Bristol Futures Student Advocate, promoting Bristol Futures and running peer-led workshops and drop-ins for Study Skills and Personal Development Planning (PDP). 

One of the best things about being a Bristol Futures Advocate? Feeling like you are truly a part of the University community. Having been in the role for more than two years now (83% of my being a student!), I can confidently say that university was made much better because of this ‘part-time job’. Here are my reflections.

Community

Sitting restlessly with your partner-in-crime hoping for students to attend your drop-ins, trying your best to dispel the awkward silences during workshops, or even talking about your cats during monthly trainings. The little things I went through as an Advocate created experiences only the Bristol Futures team understood.

It also always excited me how closely I was working with university staff, especially the Study Skills team. Primarily, it helped me make sense of my student experience. The university was suddenly not just a bureaucratic entity you complain about on Bristruths, it’s filled with real, genuine people, working as hard at their job as me and you.

As an international student, being a part of such an inspiring and supportive team was truly invaluable. Being in a new country with a vastly different culture, developing camaraderie with the diverse team at Bristol Futures really provided me with the familiarity I needed to feel included and welcomed at Bristol. I felt, happily, part of the community.

Opportunities

One of the most memorable Advocate experiences was when Simon [Gamble, Head of Academic Study Skills] drove me and two other Advocates to a little farm in Chew Valley for a workshop presentation. Free cakes and coffee aside, the experience was particularly enjoyable because we got to engage with the wider community and appreciate the extent of our impact

I also particularly enjoyed manning the Bristol Futures booth at the Staff Welcome Fair. Instead of pitching our services to students, we were promoting it to new staff instead. Did I feel like an adult? You bet.

If there was one thing these opportunities taught me, it was definitely the importance of versatility in communication. Fun as they were, these experiences taught me how to adapt my conversations to different groups of people – and my confidence is all the better for it.

Purpose

Perhaps the main thing that drove me as an Advocate was the fulfilment I got from helping other students. Being an Advocate truly meant understanding and empathising with students’ concerns, and doing our best to help them. No matter what school, degree, or study level, if we could provide assistance, we would.

Consequently, I did not only grow as an employee, I also grew as a person. I think my fellow Advocates can attest to the satisfaction of making things just a bit easier for students. It’s the reason why I joined Bristol Futures, and it’s the reason why I stayed.

Student perspective: How to use your summer productively

Photo of Claudia, the author of the postby Claudia Raymond-Hayling, Second year Theatre and English (BA) student and Bristol Futures Advocate.

For many of us, this year was difficult and not what we were expecting. However, it is important to be proud of what you have achieved. With that in mind, I have been thinking about how summer can be a productive time in many ways, some of which I thought may be useful to some of you. Whatever you’re doing, whether you’re finishing first or final year, your day-to-day will shift as the teaching block comes to a close.

Relax!

This year has required huge adjustments for many of us. For some, taking a break could not come soon enough, and for others switching off will seem quite hard! Whatever you’re feeling, using this time for a bit of a pause is a great reward to yourself for finishing the year.

Dedicate some time to hobbies

Hobbies are easy to neglect amidst university work, but they are so important to keep up! Hobbies allow you to productively focus your spare time on something that you really enjoy, whilst giving you an opportunity to learn new skills that will be transferrable throughout your life. An increased time spent on hobbies can also be really beneficial for your mental wellbeing, so dedicating even just one hour a week on something you love can make a massive impact. I know that I’m unbelievably excited to regularly go to the theatre, which I haven’t been able to do properly in such a long time due to the pandemic. If you’re not sure what hobbies you specifically enjoy, there’s nothing stopping you from picking up something new!

Go outside!

Revision and work often requires a lot of time spent indoors, so spending some time outside will be a nice change as the weather (hopefully) improves. Go for a walk with a friend or go for a nice day out. Whatever you’re doing, the outdoors can be a really nice change of scene.

Socialise

Meeting up with friends and family has been a long time coming and with restrictions easing, it has never been more important. Making time to meet up with people is a great way to spend your free time.

Think about the future

The end of the year is an important time to think about where you will be headed. Maybe you’re thinking about getting ahead for the next academic year, or you’re thinking about internships or jobs you’d be interested in. Whatever your future plans are, it’s important to be aware of them. If you don’t know what you want to do, now is the time to have a think about it! There are some great contacts through the Careers Service who will be available over the summer if you need some help with internship/job opportunities or even long-term career planning.

Even if you don’t end up doing any of these things, it is important to think about what you want to get out of this time. Although I think these are useful, do what works for you! Ultimately, be proud of finishing this year of university, during a very difficult time. It would be great to hear how you are using your summer productively in the comments and, on that note, have a great summer!

Student perspective: Sleepless in Bristol…memory challenged!

Photo of Tracy, the author of the blog postby Tracy Ohis, Bristol Futures Advocate

I know we do not know each other very well but I have a personal question to ask… How well have you been sleeping lately?

This blog aims to help you consider the importance of sleeping as you approach the final hurdle of summer term examinations. Previously, some friends seem to hold a badge of honour for “pulling an all-nighter” of studying, encouraged by the wings of a famous drink or two that is highly caffeine loaded, enough to probably sink the titanic all over again. Yet there are many other reasons why people are not getting enough ZZ’s at night as COVID19 and somewhat beyond has taxed our general mental capacity. Even though we may have enjoyed the novelty of taking Zoom meetings with lecturers in PJs (not guilty!), this may have led to a complacent attitude when compared to the academic vibe surroundings of the university’s esteemed walls.

Lack of sleep vs Memory recall

As we continue to navigate the discovery channel of new information, our memory may find it problematic to retain at least half a day’s worth of study material before a test with a limited supply of sleep. The medical advice states to aim for 7-8 hours of sleep and I must admit this was a struggle at times even before starting my academic journey. The physical long-distance study amongst other things triggered a spiral that I needed to address and with some help from the university Wellbeing department and smarter planning of my time, I was able to develop a solution that has been useful most of the time to suit my needs. I hastily add that any plans you create will be unique to fit into your lifestyle and adjusted with some measure of flexibility. Ideally, accounting for unfortunate circumstances beyond our control forbiddingly other lockdowns per se ‘throws a spanner in the works’. If you would like to know more on how you can incorporate planning into your routine, you could meet with a tutor from Study Skills to discuss and even attend a workshop.

The experts say

Scientifically, a view taken that academic performance based on the early to rise approach resulted in higher achievers as opposed to the total hours of sleep and other factors (Eliasson 2010). Whilst another investigation of 61 undergraduates were focused on those from 2nd year and onwards, used a diary and mathematical science to conclude that irregular sleep patterns affected academic performance negatively (Phillips 2017). Indeed, a further point is that lack of sleep if left long term could potentially develop into insomnia and other health issues, so seeking help from your GP or nurse is a thought worth some consideration. A takeaway message is to remember you are not alone and it is good to have this conversation even with a friend, you might find that there are likeminded colleagues who will be keen to develop a community to support each other as mentors as suggested by this article (Cort-Blackson 2018).

Getting back on track

In identifying a problem exists and deciding that you want to make those baby steps towards changing behaviour is indeed a feat to be encouraged. Take time to view some YouTube videos or Google on how to improve your sleep could be a good investment of your academic performance. Some suggestions that could be helpful:

  • Turning your phone or other electronics off 2 hours before bed.
  • Making your bedroom space clutter free.
  • Doing some form of exercise (aerobic or yoga) during the day.

Which one of these will you try? Do let us know. All the best in your exams and I hope this blog has been useful to you.