The psychology of learning has been insufficiently embedded in most training over the years, leaving the profession vulnerable to group-think bias or in-service training that’s rarely evaluated for impact.

Jake Hunton had a hunch that something was not quite right with many of his enthusiastic language learning activities born out of received wisdom, experimentation and even the need to perform. Exam literacy manoeuvres you gently from his biographical context into the world of research.

Drawing on an abundance of hypothesising, exploration and conclusions from academics and the blogosphere, he explores “what might not work as well” and ultimately “what might work better” to avoid techniques that lull us into “a nice fuzzy sense of cognitive ease”.

Exam literacy is a guide to effective exam preparation, yet it does not read like that. In the new era of linear 9 to 1 exams and a gear change from inspection bodies, teachers have a greater understanding of cognitive psychology. Hunton reminds us that the jury is still out on many of the techniques for effective learning. He has no panacea, but calls for more meaningful learner outputs supported by research.

By focusing on techniques in the classroom, the exams become like a sleeping partner: there in the background, but never considered an end point – and rejected as such at certain stages in the text. Hunton is clear that “the strategies involved in successful exam preparation do not necessarily look like the exam itself”.

Exam literacy is intended to challenge the reader to engage with research so that judgments are based on evidence from cognitive science. Attempting to sort “the edu wheat from the pseudochat”, he begins with 95 pages focusing on the debate, and then moves on to examples of the most promising practical strategies to deliver results. By results, be clear that he means depth of understanding and recall of knowledge and the ability to apply this in a range of contexts, within and beyond exams.

Highlighting and underlining, rereading, summarisation, keyword mnemonic and imagery for text are explored through examples and a discussion of academic research in these areas. Hunton lets you understand and reflect en route, as he explains why these techniques fall short of effective learning. Here, in “what might not work as well”, he refrains from consigning techniques to the scrapheap of educational bandwagons, but warns of their limitations while suggesting which ones might still be of some, albeit limited use.

Exams become like a sleeping partner, there in the background

The scene is set in “what might work better” by a small section on “learning as a generative activity” (based on research by Fiorella and Mayer). It reflects on the surface structures of problems and how they can be potential stumbling blocks for students who struggle to see the actual concrete examples. Structuring his commentary mostly around John Dunlosky’s 2013 review of “effective learning techniques”, he then moves on to examine more successful methods: elaborative interrogation, self-explanation, practice testing, multiple-choice questions, distributed and interleaved practice.

When I reached the end of part one, I noted with slight irony that retrieval of the information could well be a challenge. Part two is not, as I anticipated, a “dip-in manual”, a quick route to classroom techniques. Rather it needs careful reading, relinking the ideas to theory.

Hunton’s book challenges individual professionals and educational collectives to adapt their practice to build portfolios of “domain-specific examples”, to develop whole school practice and curriculum design that embrace spaced retrieval practice and cumulative knowledge testing. This is a book that will make you think, but demands a considered response in order to prepare students more effectively for exams by enabling strong long-term recall.