study skills

Spaced Learning (at Increasing Intervals)

I first came across the concept of what the research psychologist Will Thalheimer PhD terms “spaced learning”[1], by accident. Like anyone who has ever had to learn something at school, I found to my own detriment that trying to commit material to memory the night before a test could be problematic. By my own admission I was never that bad at this kind of learning, but equally I always knew that if I left things too late, I could end up making my life more difficult. Teachers often stressed the importance of going over material more than once, but I was always interested in whether there might be a more efficient way to memorize information.

I’ve played the guitar since I was 17 (I'm now 29) and, after a number of years of regular practice, I began to notice an intriguing pattern. I would often try to challenge myself by learning new tunes (as I still do), and it was when I tried to learn particularly difficult licks or chord progressions that I encountered the phenomenon of improved progress and memory retention as a result of spacing my learning. I realised that by increasing the intervals in between my practice sessions, over time, I could derive additional benefit from those sessions.

Day one would always be tough - I'd struggle to string notes together and the correct timing of the tune would take a back seat. If I left it a few days and then came back to the notes, I'd almost always be back to square one, but if I revisited the tune the following day, I'd often find that the particular sequence of notes that I'd been struggling with now seemed to make more sense to my fingers. So far so obvious I hear you say. It was what I discovered next that surprised me.

If I practised the tune everyday for many days in a row, I'd eventually end up learning it fairly well. This was an approach to learning that worked in principle, but which was time-intensive, and initially progress could feel a little slow. However, as a fortuitous result of my lazy practice efforts, I noticed that if I revisited the tune at ever-increasing intervals, for example, the next day, then two days later, then four days later, then a week later, and so on, I found that each time I practised, not only would I experience progress every time I sat down to play, but also in the long run I would be able to recall a tune better, say, a month later, and what's more, the overall amount of time that I'd had to invest in practising the tune was significantly less than if I'd doggedly rehearsed it day after day.

What I'd encountered is an unusual feature of the human brain that scientists are only now beginning to understand and which remains the subject of considerable debate. As I stress in The Holy Grail of Exam Success, sleep plays an integral role in memory consolidation. The process of spaced learning at increasing intervals is therefore an advanced extension of what I describe in my book and a method that may not work in every scenario, but which is definitely worth giving a go.

In very basic terms, when you first try to learn something and commit it to memory, the connections that form in your brain are weak. Therefore, in the early stages of learning, you need to nurture those connections by returning to what you’re learning on a fairly regular basis. Much of the science that allows for the formation of neural connections happens while you sleep, so it’s very important to have breaks in between learning sessions, and it's for this reason that trying to cram in the early hours of the morning before an exam is such a bad idea!

After the initial connections have formed, it's then that the human brain starts to reveal its powers. As I understand it (based on studies[2][3][4] that I’ve read), to benefit from the effects of spaced learning at increasing intervals, it seems that you need to give the progressively more complex neural connections in your brain greater periods of time to ‘crystallise’ in between learning sessions. If you do this, you should find that in the long run (and perhaps counterintuitively), your memories will be stronger and last for longer than if you try to intensively study and memorize material over a shorter period of time, and then don't revisit that material again.

Lastly, if you want to ensure that you commit facts and figures to your long-term memory, you need to occasionally revisit material after a longer period of time, say, two months later, then four months later, and so on. To use the example again of the guitar, there are certain tunes which I might not have played for many months or even years, but provided that I occasionally revisit them, the process of running through the same notes refreshes the existing neural connections, meaning that I can rest assured that the memory will remain intact and won't need re-stimulating again for a long time to come.

Try it and see for yourself - I think you might be surprised by the results. Notwithstanding, it’s important to realise that this is still an area that provokes considerable scientific debate. Studies are not conclusive as to what works best when it comes to memorizing material, therefore by all means test run the technique described, but if it doesn’t work for you, then don’t fret (no pun intended). For more on this topic, the following paper is a good place to start:

[1] Thalheimer, W. (2006, February). Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says. Retrieved September 16, 2017, from




Guest blog for Tutorfair

For this blog post I was lucky enough to be invited to write a guest blog on "power naps" for the fantastic Tutorfair. Tutorfair is a wonderful organisation which provides free tutoring to a child who can't afford tutoring, for every child that pays for tutoring. Check out my guest blog here:

New trailer/video advert now showing on YouTube!

I have yet another exciting announcement to make. The brand new trailer/video advert for The Holy Grail of Exam Success is now showing and available to view on YouTube - Originally envisaged some months ago, the creation of the trailer took a little longer than expected, but I think you’ll agree that the results are wholly worth it. Audio was provided by the hugely talented producer/songwriter Andrei ‘Sugar Jesus’ Basirov. I hope you enjoy it!


To chew or not to chew: Does gum-chewing improve academic performance?

Back in 2002, New Scientist reported on a study undertaken at the University of Northumbria (UK) ( The authors of the 75-person study suggested that the act of gum-chewing might improve short and long-term memory. Rather than the chewing gum itself having an effect, three explanations were proposed, with the most likely being that the gentle exercise of chewing could “raise a person’s heartbeat and increase the flow of oxygen to the brain”. In addition, the authors proposed that the act of chewing might trigger the release of insulin in the body, “which could increase the uptake of blood sugar by the brain”. They also made reference to an earlier Japanese study that made a link between chewing and brain activity in the hippocampus, a region of the brain important for memory.

Fast-forward to 2011 and another study at St. Lawrence University (NY, USA), published in the journal Appetite ( and reported by LiveScience (, added weight to the earlier claims, but with a caveat. This larger, 224-person study found that a “burst of gum-chewing” before testing improved a student’s initial test performance, but only for a short period: “The effect was strongest right after gum-chewing, and dropped to normal levels within 20 minutes. The gum-chewing helped during recall and memory tasks especially.”

Importantly, this study indicated that those students who continued to chew gum during the test showed no improvement. The authors of the study surmised that the extra brainpower it takes to actually chew the gum might take away from the brain's ability to take the tests, however, they also added that “because the participants were specifically asked to chew the gum, it's possible they were thinking about it a little more than they would be normally” and, "In real-world situations the chewing might be more unconscious, automated, in which case it would take up very little cognitive resources and probably not affect performance much.”

More recently in 2013, a further study carried out at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) and other academic research centres in Japan, published in the journal Brain & Cognition ( and reported on by the UK’s NHS ( sought to find out whether chewing has an effect on attention and cognitive processing speed. This smaller, 17-person study, showed mixed results in fMRI analysis, “with some areas of the brain thought to be involved in alertness and movement becoming more active, while others did not.”

The researchers also found that “chewing did cause some areas of the brain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex, to become more active, but the overall results were inconclusive. Some areas of the brain also associated with alertness actually became less active during chewing.”

So where does this leave us? The science would seem to be somewhat inconclusive as to whether gum-chewing could actually improve your test/exam scores. Yes, the study by St. Lawrence University does seem to hold some weight, especially as to the potential benefits of gum-chewing prior to a test, but the so-called “window of effect” is only 15-20 minutes after chewing. Therefore, unless we’re talking about a basic Spanish vocabulary test or similar, it would seem that you probably can’t expect gum-chewing to improve your memory recall for the entirety of a three hour paper. In fact, I would strongly bet against it.

There are also other reasons why I would advise against gum-chewing during tests/exams. Instead of relying 100% on the science, I put this to the test myself during my first year legal exams. I noticed that the only benefit to me of gum-chewing could have been that it relaxed me a little, but this may have been merely a psychosomatic effect. On the other hand, I found that as the taste of the gum wore off, it actually began to distract me more and more from my work. What’s more, most common brands of sugar free gum contain aspartame, a synthetic sweetener that nearly all health experts now agree is a substance best avoided and, if gum is chewed in large quantities (say, over the course of a three hour paper), it can even result in a laxative effect.

In conclusion, while there does seem to be some speculative evidence as to the benefits of gum-chewing before a test/exam (which you could try), gum-chewing during a test/exam wouldn’t seem the best idea for a number of reasons as outlined above. And, if you do intend to chew gum before a test/exam, try a xylitol-based gum.

NB. I hope it goes without saying that if you’ve read and followed what I have to say in The Holy Grail of Exam Success, you shouldn’t be thinking about whether gum-chewing could give you an edge. Sleep, nutrition, exercise and good study technique will always be preferable where tests/exams are concerned.

The 90/10 rule

I’m about to suggest that you study less, and not more, for your exams. Shocking, I know, but bear with me. This is the kind of blog post that will give your teacher nightmares.

Some years ago I came across an unusual and intriguing study theory: the 90/10 rule. This theory is not in The Holy Grail of Exam Success, as I was keen to avoid its being construed in the wrong way. Therefore, take it with a pinch of salt, but equally profit from it where you can.

The ‘ninety-ninety rule’ (or 90/10 rule as we shall call it for our purposes) is attributed to Dr Tom Cargill who, as a programmer and software developer at Bell Labs in the 1980s, described the rule as follows: “The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time.” This sound bite, while amusing, was intended to highlight how frequently software development projects overrun their schedules.

So what has a software developer’s humour got to do with exams I hear you ask? More than you might think.

In the context of studying for exams, the 90/10 rule can be thought of like this: it will take you the same amount of time to learn the most difficult final 10% of a subject, as it will the easier first 90%.

This is, of course, an obvious generalisation, and the actual percentages are merely arbitrary and could vary significantly, as they do with similar theories such as the Pareto principle and others. Nevertheless, the gist of the rule is sound: if you were to try to learn absolutely everything in a particular exam subject, it would likely take you much longer to understand, learn and remember the most complex details of that subject (the icing on the cake, if you will, the final 10%), when compared in relative terms to the time that it would take you to absorb all the rest of the information which makes up that subject (the other 90%).

So, am I suggesting that you don’t study what you consider to be the most difficult topic(s) in a subject? Absolutely not – this kind of thinking would be exam suicide, especially if the entire exam could be described as one big difficult topic! However, I do want to encourage you to be selective and logical with the time that you spend studying. Now let me give you a real-world example.

In my final year law exams, I had to sit a business law exam. I understood most of the topics in this subject well, except for one: corporate taxation. Like many of my classmates, I found this topic complicated and frustrating. I couldn’t easily remember the multitude of rules and the numbers never seemed to add up. When doing practice papers, I always found that I would waste far too much time on this type of question, to the detriment of the rest of my answers. Therefore, I decided to apply the 90/10 rule. Since corporate taxation was a stand-alone question topic which would likely only ever be worth a maximum of around 12 marks (according to my careful analysis of past papers), I figured that if I answered the rest of the exam well, I could just about afford to ignore the corporate taxation question altogether. In the end I didn’t study for it at all, and instead focused all my attention on improving my knowledge elsewhere.

On the day of the exam, sure enough, there was the corporate taxation question. I smiled to myself, noting that it was worth 10 marks out of 100 overall, a perfect example of the 90/10 rule in action. I ignored the question, sticking to my gameplan. This meant that I now had an extra 25 minutes or so with reading time factored in to spend on the rest of the paper (since this first paper was worth 80 marks and was three hours long). I used this extra time wisely, and completed the paper to the best of my abilities.

When I received my marks some months later, I found to my delight that I had achieved 77% overall, a solid distinction grade. The 90/10 rule had paid off, big time. This just goes to show how by carefully allocating your study time, taking educated risks and having an awareness of your own limitations, you can sway the odds in your favour. Few students can ever achieve 100% in an exam, but even fewer have taken the time to realize that you don’t have to and that you’re probably not expected to either. If you simply cannot understand a topic, it isn’t integral to any other topics and isn’t worth that many marks, then stop trying to flog a dead horse! Just ignore it.

Another reason why sugar might be the worst enemy of every student?

A friend recently recommended that I have a look at a book called Dine Out and Lose Weight. Apparently this was the 'Atkins' diet of its day (the late 1980s). It was written by a Frenchman called Michel Montignac, who developed 'The Montignac Method'. I got hold of a copy and had a flick through. It quickly became clear why my friend had suggested that I have a look at the book: there is a whole chapter on the evils of sugar!

Those of you that have read The Holy Grail of Exam Success will now understand how sugar negatively impacts various functions of the body. However, in his book, Montignac highlights another intriguing reason why we might do well to avoid sugar: consuming this and other refined carbohydrates may lead to a deficiency in B vitamins.

But why only may? I did not originally include this particular reasoning in the book as the relationship between sugar and B vitamins (B6, B12 etc.) is more complicated than this statement would have you believe. That being said, reading Montignac's advice piqued my interest in the topic, which is why I'm now keen to briefly revisit it.

B vitamins are required for the metabolism of carbohydrates (e.g. sugar) in the body. It follows that if you consume lots of carbohydrates, your body will require greater quantities of B vitamins to enable this metabolism. Your body does not readily store B vitamins, so it needs a constant supply from your diet. Therefore, diets high in carbohydrates can increase the demand for B vitamins in your body and, if you eat the wrong kinds of carbohydrates (e.g. refined carbohydrates such as sugar), which contain no B vitamins to replenish your body's supply, then the result might be a deficiency in B vitamins in your body. Additionally, diets that are high in sugar and other refined carbohydrates can provoke the body's inflammatory response, which equally may place demands on the body for certain B vitamins.

The possible consequences of B vitamin deficiency are as follow: loss of concentration, memory and perception, nervous exhaustion, fatigue and depression.

So, if ever there were a catalogue of problematic side-effects that you would seek to avoid when approaching studying and exams, then surely this would be it? Of course the answer is yes, but with a caveat: if somebody tells you that eating sugar will lead to a deficiency in B vitamins in the body, this, as I have tried to clarify above, is not entirely true, since the link between the two is indirect.

Nevertheless, avoiding a diet high in sugar and other refined carbohydrates is precisely what I suggest you do in The Holy Grail of Exam Success, so, by eliminating these foods from your exam diet, you may be able to help yourself to avoid any potential for a deficiency in B vitamins, thereby giving your body and brain a yet greater chance to function optimally.

*Book Launch* - Tuesday 22 September 2015

While The Holy Grail of Exam Success has now been on sale for a number of weeks, today, Tuesday 22 September, sees the official launch of the book on social media and elsewhere! Look out for posters in a selection of UK universities and please spread the word. To celebrate the launch, those in the UK can buy discounted paperback copies of the book with free postage by sending an email to - get your copy now!

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Back to School: 'Exams', that dreaded word

The time has come again! This week and next, students in the UK, US and elsewhere will be heading back to school for the start of the new school year. If there's one piece of important advice I'd like to give, it's that you should ALREADY be thinking about your exams.

A pretty gruesome thought, right? Wrong! The students who achieve exam success realise that exams are not just about the final few weeks of studying. Instead, you have to build a good foundation on which to base your learning. If you come to your mock exams in 10 weeks' time or your main exams in 32 weeks' time and you haven't made any decent notes in class or kept up with your homework, then you're making life unnecessarily hard for yourself and your final days spent studying for your exams will be that much more difficult.

So let me qualify what I've said above. Sure, thinking about the fact that you have exams coming up later in the year is fairly gruesome - I used to absolutely HATE it when teachers opened with that line on the first day of class! However, nowadays I understand why they said what they did. If you think about the whole year as one long slow journey towards your exams, it will be FAR easier for you psychologically when it comes to studying for them. Why? Because you'll have already done 4/5 of the work.

- NB. Even if your exams are still some way off, many of the suggestions that I make in The Holy Grail of Exam Success are entirely relevant to all students at any point in the school year. So pick up a copy today and realise your full potential!