How John Dunlosky changed my [teaching] life

I have been teaching for over 27 years now.   I have always tried to be as innovative as possible.  I started with a Bachelors degree in Geography at Queen’s University in Belfast and then went straight into my PGCE in Geography at the University of Ulster at Coleraine.   However, I never really felt that the PGCE prepared me for the classroom.   Yes – I learnt some behaviour management strategies, and how to deal with a special needs child and how lessons were meant to be structured.   But then – it was out to schools to try and learn on the job.   I never really felt that I really understood or knew much about the philosophy or the psychology of the classroom.   That, I needed to work on myself.   Since then, I have completed a wide variety of courses – both formal and informal that have helped expand my understanding of education.   Over the years – learning + experience have helped guide and shape me into the educator that I am today.  I have spent my whole career working in secondary schools.   I have always had a wide variety of students – from the really intelligent and interested to those with real learning needs or who lack any interest in improvement of education.   It’s been a rollercoaster.   I’ve attended conferences all over the world and met famous educators.   I’ve spoken at (and organised) conferences myself and written books that try to condense the difficult stuff into more manageable chunks and worked with the Guardian, the BBC and other publishers in trying to make geography as accessible as possible.   I have read a lot of educational theory.  Some I have accepted and some I have thrown out.   Much of this has been done quietly and not through social media.   I have grown as a teacher and a leader and I believe that I am a much more well-rounded, experienced and knowledgeable teacher than I was when I started out all those years ago.

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In early 2014, I had just started a new job (in the school where I currently work) and I remember coming across a pdf copy of an article from the American Educator by John Dunlosky called,  “Strengthening the Student Toolbox:  Study Strategies to Boost Learning”.  You can see the article here 

I remember reading it, then printing it out, and then going through again to highlight the things that I though were the most important.   The whole article was covered in yellow highlighter ink – making it really difficult to pick out just the best bits!   One of the first things that I connected with was the idea that teachers had a responsibility for actually doing things that would strengthen the set of tools that each individual teacher might have.   I had been toying with the idea that teachers should have a set toolbox of activities, approaches, measures, behavioural standards, actions and tools – that could be easily interchanged and adapted for whatever class you had.    This idea that we also needed to be people who would build up the tools/strategies in our students – was revolutionary.   Yes – for many years I had tried to identify and encourage my students to build up different aspects of their study habits.  I had helped prepare and adapt courses in learning to learn and effective study courses for sixth formers.  I had taught about study skills and tried to get students to try out new ways of learning old stuff.   But – this article challenged everything that I had ever tried and made me think about what the next steps were going to be in learning.

  •  What makes an effective study strategy? 

How did you learn to revise?  I was terrible at revising.   I used to convince my parents that as long as I was sitting in a quiet room, flicking through pages and trying to memorise them that this was enough.  It wasn’t.  I scraped through my GCSE and A level exams just about getting enough to get me into the course I wanted to study at university.  Then – finally, at university, I started to realise how I really needed to learn things for exams.   Is revision just about reading, re-reading and highlighting in a revision guide or textbook?  Trying to cram as much information into your head the night before the exam.  Dunlosky notes that, “Unfortunately, in a recent review of the research, mu colleagues and I found that these strategies are not that effective, especially if students want to retain their learning and understanding of content well after the exam is over.”  

I have about 10 books on my shelf that are about study strategies and how to revise for exams.   I have even written stuff about this myself for books.   But – often the advice that teachers give to pupils is trite, ineffective and actually a total waste of time.    If I think about the amount of time I spent ‘revising’ – I could probably have better spent my time by playing cricket and hanging out with my friends and ended up with the same results.  If students are to set aside time for effective revision  – then it needs to be something that will actually make a difference.   Dunlosky continues that, “Put differently, the emphasis is on what students need to learn, whereas little emphasis – if any – is placed on training students how they should go about learning the content and what skills will promote efficient studying to support robust learning.”  

This year, in my school, we have tried to work on this more than in previous years.   Recognising that our students are having to complete exams for the first time in over 3 years – we have tried to help them plan when to start their revision and have given advice about how to actually do this.   We started with a series of assemblies where I tried to address the motivation for learning and included some information about how to plan and implement revision.  There is a follow up session planned in a weeks time for Y12 and Y14 students BUT the real big driver was to encourage subject teachers to take some time to help their students plan and develop revision techniques for each individual subject that they take.    Yes – we need to ensure that our students know and understand what they need to know.  But – it is equally important that we can model and support them as they actually get down to the nitty gritty of revision.


  • Do teachers know enough about how learning happens?  

The second thing that Dunlosky queries is “another reason many students may not be learning about effective strategies concerns teacher preparation . . . current textbooks do not adequately cover the strategies; some omit discussion of the most effective ones, and most do not provide guidelines on how to use them in the classroom or on how to teach students to use them . . . teacher preparation typically does not emphasise the importance of teaching students to use effective learning strategies.”  

As noted before,  the big question here is whether teachers are prepared enough for this element of learning.   I can only remember one lecture about learning.  ONE.   Surely we need to be making sure that people who are entering the learning profession are well versed in how the brain works and how knowledge is developed and stored.  I am sure that things have improved in the 28 years since I left university – but this needs to be an integral part of Initial Teacher Training.   How can we ensure that teachers who are going into post-primary schools will be able to teach their students different revisions skills from day one?   How can they promote subject-specific techniques that will be useful in that subject area?   This is probably an area for further development for us all – where are the books that help teachers to navigate their way through the intricacies of learning particular subjects?  How can we try to make sure that textbooks include more brain-influenced material? (It’s not always easy to convince publishers that this stuff is of any benefit to the pupil)


Look up some of David Didau’s thoughts on this here 

  • The ten effective learning strategies 

Dunlosky and his colleagues therefore have listed 10 effective learning strategies that they then go on to review and categorise as Most effective, Promising or Less useful.

  1. Practice testing:  self-testing or taking practice tests on to-be-learned material
  2. Distributed practice:  implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time
  3. Interleaved practice: implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session
  4. Elaborative interrogation:  generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.
  5. Self-explanation:  explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  6. Rereading:  restudying text material again after an initial reading
  7. Highlighting and underlining:  marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading
  8. Summarization:  writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts
  9. Keywords mnemomic:  using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  10. Imagery for text:  attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.

Each strategy listed above helps us to consider how we actually go about learning stuff.  It does not matter if this is for an exam or a job interview.   When we need to learn stuff for questions – we are trying to recall and retrieve learned material.   Sometimes when under pressure or in unfamiliar surrounding we can experience a type of mind blankness that impacts our memory.  Interestingly, it has never occurred to me that when working for job interviews that maybe I have been employing totally the wrong techniques for learning what I needed to know.   Equally, (and thankfully), it seems that some universities are starting to move away from the memory tests of exams and towards a more skills based, formative analysis of marks.  For example – my daughter who is currently doing the same degree at the same university that I went to – has not actually done any exams and there is no sign that she ever will.  A degree awarded with just emphasis on the continuous course work is a great start and removes that dependence on memorisation.


  • Most effective Strategies 1 – Practice Testing 

Dunlosky recognises the impact that exams/tests/quizzes can have on students.  Over the last 2 years, as a result of the impact of COVID and school lockdowns, we have become more versed and understanding of the big difference between the high stakes and low stakes exams that can happen.   If anything,  this coming year will involve some of the highest stakes testing we have ever seen.   There are pupils in my school who are doing Year 14, A Level History who did not do AS exams and did not do GCSE exams and who are expected to get a final history grade based on ONE exam.  The stakes do not get much higher than that and this brings a pressure of its own.

Yet – using tests and exams can also be a major source of helping to improve student learning.  Dunlosky writes, “For instance, college students who reported using practice tests to study for upcoming exams earned higher grades, and when middle school teachers administered daily practice tests for class content, their students performed better on future tests”  

When my daughter was revising for her GCSE exams, she became clinical about how she used past papers.  She would look up the questions, break them down, colour code them and analyse the different ways that questions were asked.  She would write model answers and then check that she was getting everything right with mark schemes.   It took a LOT of time and effort.  But – it worked.  There were few places where she was surprised by questions.  She had seem them all before and had prepared answers for everything.  I used to joke that she knew the papers better than some teachers – but, I’m not sure how much of a joke it was.

But – we need to also note the commitment that the teacher needs to show when using this particular piece of research.  It is up to the teacher to feed their students these questions.  To make sure that they have seen and answered the breadth of the questions (and answers).   To try and provide daily (or at least, regular) challenge with practice questions.   With a Year 11 GCSE geography class we have been trying a little experiment this year where we have emphasised the retrieval of knowledge with a class to see if they can retain the details of longer questions and case study material for a longer time.   We have interleaved work and worked on many, many practice questions in a variety of formats and tested constantly to see if they are picking up on the subtleties required for long-term memory retention.  Yet – sometimes when we set a test – the students still fail to do adequate revision and have no real detailed information to draw on.   It can be frustrating!

For many years, I have employed the same follow up to tests and exams with all my classes.  Following a test we will always go through the answers so that pupils can see where they went wrong and correct their answers accordingly.   The theory is that pupils will learn from their mistakes  . . . but that is not always the case.   Dunlosky notes that, “When a student fails to retrieve a correct answer during a practice test, that failure signals that the answer needs to be restudied;  in this way, practice tests can help students make better decisions about what needs further practice and what does not.”   

The big question here is – do the students actively go back and re-learn what they missed or were wrong about?   Are they learning from failure?   Are they bouncing back from tests and exams, armed with the knowledge of what they don’t know?  And, to what extent does the motivation of the student play in this?  A student who lacks motivation will struggle to see any relevance to this activity and will not actively engage.

Dunlosky recognises that actually one of the biggest benefits to testing is that students get the most from the requirement to retrieve ‘content from memory’ and that when they ‘require recall from memory.’   Retrieval practice tells us that it is this act of pulling the memory form the long-term to the working/short-term memory that actually helps the student to remember things.  Therefore, the process of answering questions in this fashion is what is writing the memories into the minds of the student.


Dunlosky then goes on to notes that, “students should be encouraged to take notes in a manner that will foster practice tests.  For instance, as they read a chapter in their textbook, they should be encouraged to make flashcards, with the key term on one side and the correct answer on the other.  When taking notes in class, teachers should encourage students to leave room on each page for practice tests.”  

Flashcards are an essential piece of revision kit.  You can now buy pre-printed revision cards for lots of different subjects BUT really, it is when you actually go to the effort to create your own – that the real learning begins.   The actual process of thinking what to write on one side of the card and then the other is where the learning really happens.   Then, these concepts get embedded again and again over time.  There are lots of different ways where teachers could and should try to include answers to tests and past paper questions into the learning process.

Dunlosky then moves on to the idea where students actively test themselves.  He notes simply that, “students should continue testing themselves, with feedback, until they correctly recall each concept at least once from memory.”  This means that they need to keep going until they get it right.  It puts a bit of low-stakes thinking and learning onto the process of coming up with the right answer.   However, the issue again with this involves the motivation of the students.   Some students do not have the resilience or the desire to keep cycling back to things that they thought they knew and understood.   It takes a fair bit of teacher ‘leaning’ to ensure that students keep going with this loop until they know/understand the key concepts.   A certain amount of traffic lighting can be used here as they realise the extent to which they have learned something.

Dunlosky further suggests that, “the idea is for teachers to choose the most important ideas and then take a couple of minutes at the beginning or end of each class to test students”.  Testing therefore should be constant.  It should be repetitive.  It should be fresh.  It should be something that pupils come to expect and experience on a daily basis.   It should be focused on real past paper style questions.   It should be something that pupils will immediately be able to identify as fitting into the same pattern of what to expect.   There is massive onus on the teacher to make sure that what is delivered is vitally important and that the tests/quizzes and exams are taken (and prepared for) in a serious manner.

  • Most effective  Strategies 2 – Distributed Practice 


Dunloskey begins his discussion of the second most effective strategies for learning by explaining how massed practice works.  This is when students will repeat the same process/ spelling continually by writing it out again and again.   Dunlosky suggests that the process for distributed practice as, “the student writes out each word only once, and after transcribing the final word, going back and writing each one again, and so forth, until the practice is complete . . . the practice with any word is distributed across time (and the time between practicing any one word is filled with another activity – in this case, writing other words).”  Dunlosky also suggests another alternative way of looking at this where a student learning something would, “study his notes and texts during a shorter session several evenings before the exam and then study them again the evening before.”   In each case the learning is distributed across a number of sessions.  The principal at work here is that if students learn things and dip in and out of them from time to time – they are more likely to be able to retain this knowledge/information.  Dunlosky argues that, “students will retain knowledge and skills for a longer period of time when they distribute their practice than when they mass it  – even if they use the same amount of time massing and distributing their practice.”  In other words – spending on hour a night over 3 nights is MORE effective that spending 3 hours the night before a test cramming the knowledge into your brain.

The other issue here is that often students struggle with the self-motivation and organisational skills required to be able to manage distributed practice effectively.   The number of distractions that young people have to contend with is probably not more than when I like to listen to cricket matches on the radio – but the potential distractions from smart phones, Netflix, social media and Xboxes certainly makes it difficult for ever the most self-disciplined pupil to set aside enough time.

Weirdly, students will use elements of distributed practice increasingly in their online lives and then not translate them effectively to their school work.   I sometimes have watch my son play along with experienced gamers as he follows their actions and movements from youtube videos as he goes through similar scenarios in the game.    He will spend time each night coming back to the same place in the game to do it again better and to improve his moves and skills at a certain level.   What sometimes looks monotonous and boring to an outsider (like me) looking in – is actually building skills and resilience in the gameplay.  Yet – our young people do not seem to transfer that same skill into how they do learning and school.

Three weeks ago I spent some time with some students in my school to talk to them about how they needed to start the revision needed for their exams.  They had just completed a test in the course and had not really achieved the marks that they should have.   None of them had taken heed of the advice.   So – I asked why not and predicted that they had said to themselves that easter was time enough.  The reality is that students expect to rely on massed practice rather than distributed practice.  If we really want them to distribute their learning we need to actually help/force them to do this.  Its not enough to expect them to have the self-discipline to be able to achieve this on their own.   An experienced teacher knows that they are just storing up pressure that will make it difficult for them to achieve their potential and that a more distributed practice would help – but unfortunately most teens need to experience the sense of failure for themselves first before they start to listen (I am worried that I am starting to sound like an old man here – but I often explain to my students that the earlier you start revising the less pressure and less worry you will have in the run up to the exams).

Dunlosky suggests a practical approach to this, he says, “teachers should focus on helping students map out how many study sessions they will need before an exam, when those sessions should take place (such as which evenings of the week), and what they should practice during each session.”  

Finally, distributed practice can and should be used in the classroom.   It is important that teachers return to important material constantly.   Within lesson plans, I often spend time reflecting on what we covered in the last lesson and then trying to create the connections in the learning with the new material to be covered in the next lesson.  Dunlosky suggests that this is connected together with a selection of short and longer (cumulative) tests that will regularly assess the progress (and learning) of the students.

  • Promising Strategies 1 – Interleaved Practice 

interleaving-5There has been a lot of talk recently about interleaving and interleaved practice.  There are a lot of misconceptions about it as well and I have no doubt that this particular method suits some learners more than it does others.   For example, I am not sure that this idea would work well with me.   I have a very linear brain.  I like to learn things in order.  I like to teach things in the order that they come up in an exam paper.  I think this helps students to identify with the structure.   It means that they are using less brain capacity trying to work out the order of things and can concentrate on just answering the question.   Dunlosky describes Interleaved practice as being, “similar to distributed practice in this it involves spacing one’s practice across time, but it specifically refers to practicing different types of problems across time.”  

Some evidence suggests that Interleaving the learning as opposed to having massed practice can have an impact in test performance where students are likely to be three times as successful that learners who only use massed practice.   The argument here is that massed practice leads to quick learning – the students gain a solid knowledge of the key concepts but they then forget this quickly as well.  The learning is not practiced, embedded or revisited and this means that learners lose the sense of what they were trying to learn.  By contrast, interleaved practice can slow learning down (and in some ways can interrupt other streams of learning) but it can lead to much greater retention.

So how exactly does this work and why is this a better way of managing learning as a teacher than through a reliance on massed practice?  Dunlosky answers this by noting that, “In contrast to massed practice, interleaving problems requires distributed practice, which by itself benefits student achievement.”   A question then can be asked about whether it is the distributed nature of the practice or the interleaving which has the biggest impact?  Dunlosky suggests some things that teachers can do to help boost student achievement, he writes, “I suggest that teachers revise worksheets that involve practice problems, by rearranging the order of the problems to encourage interleaved practice . . . teachers should do their best to interleave questions and problems from newly taught materials with those from prior classes.”  Therefore there is much that the teacher can do with how they arrange their lessons, schemes of work and resources and tests to make sure that information is studied, revised and then further revisited.

  • Promising Strategies 2 and 3  – Elaborative interrogation and Self-Explanation 

Elaborative interrogation is when students might be reading and try to then explain why a fact might be true.  The exercise is not necessarily aimed at trying to find a ‘right’ answer but allows the student to elaborate on why a fact might be true or why something might happen or be linked to something else.  Dunlosky notes that, “even when the explanations are not entirely on the mark, [they] can still benefit understanding and retention.”  In fact, often when I am teaching new content and I am asking questions to try and tease out what students already know about the topic, this can lead to a ‘euraka!’ moment when they start to connect different pieces of knowledge into something that actually makes sense of the wider topic.    Dunlosky notes that, “if the student were using self-explanation, then she would try to explain how this new information is related to information that she already knows.”   As teachers, we often try to get students to vocalise their thinking and as we encourage them to do this – those sometimes rambling thoughts and ideas can be shaped into something that makes more sense and helps to solve the problem or answer the question.   For example, the geographer in me loves asking the one word question – ‘why?’ constantly in my classes.   As the students get older, into GCSE I progress to ‘so what’ to help them to scaffold more detailed answers that can serve as the foundation for good longer answers.


In relation to Self-explanation, Dunlosky writes that, “in solving new problems that involve transferring what one has learned during practice, those who initially used self-explanation perform better than those who did not use this technique.”   In this way, students learn to give reasons as to why they have taken certain decisions or done things in a particular way.  This verbal expression of things, the thought processes behind thinking an answer and then verbalising it for marking/commentary/ reflection, helps to reinforce ideas and allows them to ‘stick’ longer in the brain.


Check out the infographics from @ImpactWales

  • Less useful strategies 1 and 2  – Rereading and Highlighting 

The issue with many of the final strategies that we mention here is that they are massively prevalent and are used a lot by students as they plan and prepare for exams.  I am often advising students to find the revision technique that works for them and stick at it.  However, the reality is that in most cases we will need to employ a series of different techniques to help get us across the line.


Rereading is a massive issue.  When I am talking to students about revision I ask them what the difference is between revision and reading.   They usually look at you a bit funny when you ask it – but when you start to delve into things – they start to realise that in their head the 2 things mean the same thing – get their notebook/revision guide/ textbook and flick through the pages reading them and hoping that something will stick.  Some will argue that the more you read the same material – the more that it will stick.  For those of us who have photographic memories – that would be amazing; but for the majority of us who don’t and struggle to retain even the most mundane thoughts – re-reading is never really going to provide us with the memory capacity we are looking for.   Dunlosky writes,  “Despite its popularity, rereading has inconsistent effects on student learning:  whereas students typically benefit from rereading when they must later recall texts from memory, rereading does not always enhance students’ understanding of what they read.”   For example, I have written revision guides for the A Level Geography specification for NI schools.  If my students just re-read these books and go over them again and again – they will have knowledge (and hopefully it will stick) but a major part of the exam is that they students need to know how to apply this knowledge to some complex questions.  Sometimes the questions can be wordy and tricky to understand – students must be selective with the information that they use to back up their answer.  they cannot just download all of the information in their head and hope that some of this scores points.   Re-reading things on their own is a start but it is not enough.  Yet – for many students this is the ONLY form of revision that they do.

The use of highlighters has its place.  I like to use different colours of highlighters to help me to emphasise really important things when I am working.  Dunlosky notes that, “highlighting is only the beginning of the journey, and that after they read and highlight, they should then restudy the material using more-effective strategies.”  The problem is that often highlighting means that students are searching for the core information and then loose the sense of the material as they do this.   A highlighted page might only end up with key terms/ phrases and might miss some of the key detail required for a more detailed answer.   When my daughter started to revise for her first external exams she used to go through a set of highlighters each week as she colour coded everything in sight.  The pages were lovely to look at but visually difficult to pick out what actually needed to be learned properly.

  • Less useful strategies 3 – Summarization 


John Dunlosky writes that,  “Summarization involved paraphrasing the most important ideas within a text.  It has shown some success at helping undergraduate students learn, although younger students who have difficulties writing high-quality summaries may need extensive help to benefit from this strategy.”  Following some extensive trial and error – I discovered that the best way for me to remember stuff for exams was to condense or summarise all of my notes into revision notes.  I would then take these revision notes and summarise them down again and again until eventually I would be left with one A3 page that was just covered in key words and concepts.   I called these my ‘hook’ words as these words would provide links and hooks into the detail of different concepts.   Its a variation on summarization and maybe it worked because I was at university – the big question is whether this same technique can be effectively used by young er learners.

There is evidence that if this technique is coached carefully that it can make a difference to the success of the student.

  • Less useful strategies 4 and 5  – Keyword Mnemonic and Imagery for Text 


The final techniques reviewed by Dunlosky involve different aspects of mental imagery (Dunlosky calls this, “developing internal images that elaborate on what one is studying”).  For example, when studying things like languages and vocabulary – students might learn that the word for tooth is la dent and will make a mental pairing of the 2 words with one image.  In fact, much of the way that modern languages is taught tries to get students to match images with words.

In addition, they might make links between the words – the dent in the french word is reminiscent of the word dentist so students will link the 2 keywords together.

Dunlosky notes that these techniques are useful and “Mental imagery does increase retention of the material being studied, especially when students are tested soon after studying.  However, research has shown that the benefits of imagery can be short-lived.”  Therefore, if linguist rely solely on these methods to embed the words required within languages, it is likely that the students will quickly forget the connections between the key words or what the words that match the pictures will actually be.


Dunlosky finishes with some tips for teachers for using effective learning strategies

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This relatively short article (though based on much longer research) by John Dunlosky is a game-changer.   It gives teachers guidance on how we should be trying to both plan and encourage our students to improve their revision strategies and techniques.  If we can help them to become more efficient and effective learners – then they will do better and will be able to answer those difficult questions in more detail.  It is based on empirical research and uses the most up to date information on cognitive science.   But – Dunlosky rightly comments towards the end of the article that, “Even the best strategies will only be effective is students are motivated to use them correctly”.  That is another long post entirely – because sometimes it is difficult to motivate EVERY Learner.  COVID has not helped – it is like out students are awakening from a long coma and they are trying to get their eyes working before they even start thinking about getting up and moving around on their feet.  But – they need to want to. They need a reason to get up.


Thanks for the inspiration and ideas John!


Dunlosky, John et al (2013) Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques:  Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (I) 4-58, SAGE 

John Dunlosky – How to build a better learner in the TES, Sept 2021 

Dunlosky, John et al (2013) What works, what doesn’t.   2013 Scientific American Mind Sept/Oct 2013 


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