How can we help students prepare for exams more effectively?
This is the third in a series of three blogs aimed at teachers, pupils and parents to be exam ready. This post draws on scientific research and best practice to examine what effective revision should look like, but invariably doesn’t.
How many of us were explicitly taught how to revise? Most adults I speak to – teachers and parents – were never taught how to revise. We were just expected to muddle through. This is not acceptable for our children.
If your experience was anything like mine, revision was just something our teachers just expected us to go away and do by themselves. Maybe this was because they felt like they didn’t have the time to build in revision. Or maybe it’s because they themselves didn’t know how to do and they’d had to muddle through themselves.
Break the cycle
I find myself quoting the poet Philip Larkin a lot these days: ‘Man hands on misery to man…’
We owe it to the next generation to break this cycle of not knowing how to revise. There will always be pupils who find ways that work for them, usually through trial and error. That’s exactly what I ended up doing. Stubborn perseverance and a little bit of luck got me there in the end. Maybe I would have got a lot further if just one of my teachers had spent half a lesson showing us how to get stuff stuck in our heads?
An equality issue
There’s a real equality issue here. What about the kids who don’t manage to work things out for themselves? I was raised in a relatively academic household and I still kept getting revision wrong. My parents brought work home with them all the time, so it was normal for me to do the same. And I was sufficiently self-motivated that, even if half of what I was doing wasn’t really working, at least the other half was.
How do we ensure all pupils, regardless of background, are doing the right things? At my school, we devote considerable time to making sure our pupils are taught not just how to revise, but also how not to revise.
HOW to revise
- Condensing information. Writing our reams is pointless and very time-consuming. But when it’s focused (i.e. the child knows precisely which bits are more important) and it’s paired with the strategies below, it can be effective. I found this was particularly effective for my A level Geography case studies.
- Turning words into pictures. The term dual coding has gained a lot of currency recently. Personally, I don’t know how you teach anything without drawing it. I realise now that I scribble on the board automatically because I started doing it back when I was revising for my GCSEs. And it worked! But I wish I had realised it sooner. Maybe then I would have got a better grade in my GCSE French.
- Repeated retrieval. Others have written extensively about this – for good reason. There’s no magic bullet for revision, but repeated retrieval is fundamental. If I see a child making cue cards I always check they’ve made a self-quizzing tool by writing questions on one side and answers on the other. If not, they’re just copying or condensing.
How NOT to revise
- Reading through notes/textbooks/revision guides. We only retain a small amount of what we read and our working memories quickly become overloaded, leading to stress and panic.
- Highlighting aimlessly. I despair if I see a pupil highlighting for ‘key information’ because, often, more than half the page is ‘key’. All they end up with is a more colourful page than when they started. A recent study has shown even university students over-rely on highlighting.
- Making revision posters crammed with information and fancy bubble writing (preferably in gel pens). I’m a stationery addict too, but there comes a point when you have to tell yourself that making things looks pretty is not just a way to keep yourself awake but a blatant case of procrastination.
The more effort it takes, the more likely it is to work. It’s a mantra we use with our pupils to help them ward off that arch nemesis: procrastination.
We make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that if they are just reading through notes, highlighting chunks and spending an age making things look nice, they are not really revising. Some pupils require considerable nudging. But if you are persistent, they will come to realise what they are doing isn’t working. They are merely putting off doing something that will take a lot of effort by doing something that will take less effort. They are just going through the motions and making themselves look busy. It’s a message we impart to parents too, so they can help their children help themselves.
Revision is boring
There’s no way we can argue around this fact. Even apps and YouTube videos start grating eventually. We need to stop dressing up revision as something that has to be fun. Instead, we need to be honest with them and make sure they are equipped with the tools to make revision a purposeful use of their time. Modelling is essential here. There’s no point just telling someone how to revise – show them. They need to see the value in it. If they start to notice that what you’ve taught them is working, it will start to become rewarding.
In this series, I have explored how to create the conditions for knowledge to stick: How to eat and drink so brains are firing on all cylinders. How to sleep so that memory isn’t impaired and emotions aren’t going haywire. Just as eating differently and sleeping differently can become habits, revision can become a habit too.
Good habits can be difficult to form and bad habits can be difficult to break. We cannot allow future generations of pupils to osmotically acquire the ability to revise like we did. How to revise needs to be explicitly taught, with effective revision behaviours reinforced by parents. Muddling through is robbing our children of success.