How To Study: The Power of Retrospective Revision Timetables

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How To Study: The Power of Retrospective Revision Timetables

Revision timetables are often praised as the best way to structure your time in a coherent, logical manner. It’s certainly true that they can have some benefits and I know that revision timetables can work for some people – that’s absolutely fine.

But are we using them in the correct way? Is the standard ‘prospective’ timetable really the most effective technique? I don’t believe so.

The Standard “Prospective” Timetable

Prospective means “looking forward” — we plan out our schedule by writing our dates in advance along with the topics we want to cover. I used this method back before GCSEs, like many students still do and, as time went by, found three main problems with this approach.

  1. This standard method requires us to look into the future and work out what topics we think we’re going to have issues with. For some, this might be crystal clear but, for most of us, it’s pretty unrealistic. Laying out topics beforehand may lead to either needlessly repeating subjects, or not covering our weakest topics enough. Also, occasionally life just gets in the way. We can’t help that. A friend’s birthday or unexpected emergencies can interrupt our entire schedule and render our neatly organised timetable useless.
  2. Prospective timetables encourage us to think of revision as a function of time rather than topics. It doesn’t really matter how we fill our time. What matters is understanding the content. Rather than thinking “each day I need to get three topics done”, I find it helpful to think “what topics do I need to work to improve”.
  3. Actually creating the timetable. Personally, I used to view this as an exercise in procrastination — we’re putting off studying by working on a neatly organised timetable and playing with highlighters to create a schedule that 9 times out of 10 we won’t even follow! Sounds a little absurd to me! Friends of mine even managed to put off studying for weeks by rationalising that a timetable needed to be created first. The lack of activation energy engaged them in a damaging cycle of procrastination that does nobody any good when exams are fast approaching!

So, if the common prospective timetable is unhelpful, what should we be doing? Enter retrospective timetabling.

The Retrospective Timetable

Retrospective revision timetables reverse the conventional method. Rather than starting with a timeline of dates, we start with a list of subjects and topics that we have compiled through scoping our subject.

This method of scoping your course is, in itself, a very valuable use of time. A subject can often seem daunting until it’s broken down into its constituent parts.

My Spaced Repetition Spreadsheet System, which you can read about here, is an example of a retrospective timetable in action. The approach involves making a sheet for each subject and, in the first column of each spreadsheet, you list all the topics for that subject.

Once you’ve done this, the spreadsheet system is very simple. In essence, every time you study a topic and, crucially, test yourself through actively recall, then you write the current date in the column corresponding to that topic in the spreadsheet.

After repeating this exercise, you build up a list of repetitions as well as a table which enables you to keep track of not only when you last studied that topic but, by colour coding each topic based on your comprehension, you can start to rank how confident you are for each area of the course.

Ali’s Spreadsheet System for Third Year Psychology

By inputting dates into my spreadsheet as well as colour coding my understanding, each morning I can look through my lists, identify which topics have a red mark by them and/or haven’t been covered for a few days, and then work on those topics for that day.

Over time, we develop a deeper understanding of all of our topics and, by working on our weakest areas each day we’re tackling the content that we find most difficult which is therefore more cognitively demanding and hence more effective at improving our long-term memory.

But you may be wondering how should you approach your spreadsheet? The first thing to do is start with what you DON’T know.

We often gravitate towards topics that we feel comfortable studying because we know the basic principles and it feels easier. But for your revision to be effective, you have to keep reminding yourself to study topics that you are least comfortable with.

For example, I started with the final topic in the textbook and then worked my way back. By starting at the end of the textbook or even at a random point in the course, it encourages you to study topics that are more cognitively demanding. That said, you may find the first few topics particularly difficult and so it would be better for you to concentrate on those.

The KEY POINT is to avoid starting with topics that you already feel that you have a good grasp of – whilst it may feel satisfying, it’s not mentally taxing and, as I’ve said elsewhere, learning is most effective when we’re engaging in cognitively demanding study.

The more effort it takes you to learn a topic and the more effort it takes you to actively recall information – the stronger that information is going to get encoded in your long-term memory.

Personally, I also found that it was better for me to blitz through a topic, test myself and repeat this process for 10 different areas on a single day rather than spend hours focussed on a single topic.

It’s easy to get too focussed on one topic and fall into the trap of Parkinson’s Law whereby “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

An approach which aims to target multiple areas on the same day can help to prevent you from getting caught up in one complex area.

In fact, this approach where you switch tasks and subjects regularly rather than ‘blocking’ numerous hours/days trying to learn a single topic is a form of ‘interleaving’.

It might appear somewhat counterintuitive and it’s hard to convince yourself to take this approach, but there has been evidence in both sport and academia which shows that it’s more efficient and effective as, over time, it constructs a stronger knowledge base.

It certainly worked for me – please give it a try for a few days at least and I’d be surprised if you didn’t see some benefits!

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To summarise, the main reasons why I prefer a retrospective approach to timetable over the classic prospective timetables are:

  1. We don’t have to look into the future.
  2. We can see an overview of our topics as well as our confidence with each topic.
  3. It encourages us to think of our studying in terms of topics, instead of time.
  4. It’s easy to construct one of these spreadsheets that it spares us the cognitive effort of having to look weeks into the future.
  5. It accounts for unpredictable events that could offset our entire calendar.

I understand that everyone is different and timetables do work for some people but if you’re finding that your standard ‘prospective’ timetable doesn’t really work then perhaps try the retrospective spreadsheet system.

Give it a go and let me know how it works out for you.

Videos relevant to this blog post:

(^ Particularly Parts 3 and 4)

Ali Abdaal

About The Author

I'm an ex-doctor turned YouTuber, Podcaster, entrepreneur and author. I've been creating YouTube videos for over 7 years and have a following of over 4 million over on my main channel.

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8 months ago