William Wadsworth

by William Wadsworth

The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.

My all-time favourite back to school study tip is called retrieval journaling: want to know how it can transform your grade this year?

Its power lies in its ability to stop you forgetting most of what your course within a few weeks (or even days!) of being taught it, thereby helping you start your preparation for big exams with most of the key knowledge in place already.

And the best bit: it only takes 5 minutes a day!

Helping students hit top grades at school, university and college is my life’s work. I’ve been doing it for nearly a decade, applying the psychology of studying well and the science of truly effective learning to help save students like you time, and get you the marks you deserve.

Traffic to ExamStudyExpert.com swells in the run-up to big exams, with students looking for advice on how to revise and review efficiently. And that’s great; I’ve got lots of material to help, and I’m glad to be of service.

Trouble is, for a lot of those students, they’re sitting down to revise / review for their exams only to find that they’ve forgotten much of what they’d previously been taught in lessons and lectures. As a result, getting ready for that big test or exam can feel less like “re-viewing” or “re-vising”, more like “viewing” or “vising” for the first time!

What if there was a way to break that pattern, and start your revision / review process knowing most of your course rather than having forgotten most of it?

That’s where my “retrieval journal” technique comes in.

Read on to discover how it works, and exactly how to use it to transform your results – all in just 5 minutes a day.

Prefer an explainer vid? Check out my mini-interview for The Exam House where I explain retrieval journaling, why it helps and why it’s so useful!

A brief reminder: the science of effective learning

Retrieval journaling is based on the two most powerful principles of effective learning known to science: retrieval practice and spaced learning. I’ve written in considerable detail about both of these before (check out the links for the full story), but as a reminder:

Retrieval practice means learning by trying to remember what you know. It works because whenever you bring information to mind – whenever you pull facts out of your memory – your memory of those facts becomes vastly stronger and more durable.

There are lots of different ways you can do retrieval practice, such as flashcards, blank page retrieval, or getting a friend to test you (see the full retrieval practice article for more). Students who switch to retrieval practice rather than passive ways of revising (like re-reading) often improve on test and exam scores by a whole grade, sometimes more.

Spaced learning means spreading your learning out over time. Each time you revisit a fact after a time delay, you will forget it more slowly, and remember it for longer. The best way to do your spaced “revisits” of information is, of course, by using retrieval practice techniques.

Retrieval practice and spaced learning are powerful on their own, but put them together, and they make a truly formidable combination.

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    So how to apply all this to my “retrieval journaling” technique?

    How to use retrieval journaling: the ultimate back to school study tip

    Introducing “retrieval journaling”: the method I teach my private students to give them a powerful edge on their classmates through the year, and get them the best possible grades more easily.

    The process is simple: spend 5 minutes every single school day reflecting on what you did in lessons that day. Think about what each lesson covered, and challenge yourself to remember anything you think would be particularly helpful to know for exams later in the year.

    Write down whatever you remember on a page in your retrieval journal.

    Here are my six top tips for making this work brilliantly in practice:

    1. Focus on the big picture

    You’re not going to be able to regurgitate every detail of each lesson or lecture in the time available. And that’s OK. Don’t sweat the details: for instance, try to remember the main concepts you talked about, any major formulas, any new words or any important principles that were introduced.

    2. Check, but no early peeking

    Once you’ve tried to remember something (and only then!), you’re allowed to go back to your notes and have a quick check that you’ve remembered key information accurately. Take that opportunity to correct any errors in a different coloured ink, so that you will better remember next time.

    3. Same time, same place

    Commit to doing your 5 minutes of retrieval practice journaling at the same time every day, so it becomes a daily ritual. Perhaps at a certain time when you get in from school or college, or first thing in the morning, between breakfast and leaving for the day (get up 5 minutes earlier!)

    4. Kick-start the habit

    The key to getting started for many people is getting someone to hold you accountable. Just knowing that someone else expects you to do it is a powerful motivator for many of us. Parents could do the job. I could even do it if you like – just email me to let me know, and I will be more than happy to send you a couple of follow-up emails to hold you to your good intentions!

    5. Keep the momentum

    After that, build your retrieval journaling practice into a fully-fledged habit by building an unbroken chain of consecutive retrieval journal days, taking advantage of the satisfaction that comes when you manage not to miss yet another day. Free apps like Today or Done will let you track which days you do retrieval journaling on, and will help you avoid missing a day so as to avoid breaking your lovely streak.

    6. Make it something worth treasuring

    Finally, help make writing your retrieval journal each day a pleasure, by choosing a physically nice book to work in. I’d go for something leather-bound with off-white pages personally (like this), but go with your own style and preferences.

    Feel the retrieval journaling difference

    So why do I rave about retrieval journaling as a back-to-school study tip? Can 5 minutes a day really make such a difference?

    It’s like a mighty, 3-pronged assault on the grades you deserve:

    1. The power of spaced retrieval: the combination of retrieval practice and spacing is the most potent way known to science to lock information into memory – and keep it there. Spaced retrieval is not magic – you will eventually become hazy on what you’ve practised recalling – but it beats any other learning techniques known to science.
    2. The power of “just 5 minutes”: it may not sound like much, but consistency is the key. It quickly adds up: it’s 2.5 hours a month, and 22.5 hours over a 9-month school year. And if you think how many days it would take to do 22.5 hours top-quality revision / review hours (about 5 days for many of us). That’s a massive amount of extra high-quality study time.
    3. The power of habit: building a daily revision / review habit makes it easy to transition into exam-preparation mode at the end of the year / semester. No more hand-wringing about not starting your revision soon enough: you’ve been revising right from the beginning of the year! And as you get closer to exams, it will feel easy and natural to gradually build more time on to that daily 5-minute habit.

    Dial it up…

    You can stretch the retrieval journal principle to suit your needs. If you’re finding it trivially easy to remember what you did that day, try off-setting by a day, and remember what you did yesterday instead.

    If you’re following a more advanced or intensive course, you may find 5 minutes barely scratches the surface of what you did that day. If so, try pushing the daily time a little – to 10 or 15 minutes, say – but be wary of over-committing. Far better to get a quality 10 minutes in every single day than to aim for 25 and fail to establish the habit because you can’t always face nearly half an hour of extra studying each day.

    If you need a more heavy-duty study tip to see you through “back to school” and set you up for success on tough or more advanced courses, try beefing up the retrieval journal principle by adding a weekly review. Schedule an extra session each week – maybe 30-45 minutes – where you try to remember key points from both last week and the week before. That way, you’ll have 3 spaced retrieval practice attempts on information from each class: once in your daily retrieval journal session, and twice more in your weekly retrieval journal sessions that week and the following week.


    Give it a try, and let me know how you get on!

    Oooh – and just before you go… be sure to grab your copy of my free “Science of Learning Cheat Sheet”: a happier path to better grades with my all-time fave tips and tricks.


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      William Wadsworth
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