By Sue O'Leary-Hall Academic Director, Thesan Coaching & Training
Earlier this term, I was very nearly lynched: I had suggested to a group of Year 11 girls that they might start their revision in September, rather than April.
Cries of “But we have no time!” and “This is ridiculous!” pierced the air as fifty pairs of eyes burnished me with a death stare. I reassured them that just 10-20 minutes a day could make a significant impact on their grades. The prospect of an extra sixty hours of focused revision between September and Easter for such a small daily time investment started to pique their interest...
As our ‘Smart Strategies for Exam Success’ seminar progressed, it became clear that many of these pupils felt overwhelmed by the prospect of even starting revision, as though it is a runaway train that they are afraid to board.
But like it or not, that train is heading to Examville and it’s surely better to be driving it than hanging onto the caboose by your fingertips.
So how can we put our pupils in the driving seat?
By sharing some key research messages with them and then showing them what that might look like in terms of the actual business of revising... and, of course, by making revision seem less intimidating. We need to teach pupils that they can work smarter rather than harder and still have a bit of downtime at the end of each day.
I would posit that there are two elements to effective revision: deconstruction and reconstruction. Our pupils may already be pretty adept at breaking subjects down into topics and sub-topics, using tools such as mind-maps to capture key information in a digestible format. Where they struggle tends to be in reconstructing and applying that information to exam questions. The reasons for the struggle are two-fold: firstly, the feeling of panic when they can’t remember the details they need and secondly, an inability to make all those pieces of information form a cohesive jigsaw. Let’s deal with those problems one at a time….
Barriers to revision
One of the earliest barriers to revision is the fear of failure which pupils experience when they are unable to recall information. For some pupils – particularly those whose self-esteem is closely linked to their academic performance – this can be enough to disengage them from any further attempts at revision. Research on neuroplasticity teaches us that when we struggle to remember something, that act of concentrated retrieval strengthens the neural pathway relating to that content and helps to secure it in our long-term memory.
So teaching pupils that it’s actually good to feel stuck is important, as long as we also teach them to try a range of strategies to help solve the problem.
Cundall Manor School in North Yorkshire has adopted the term ‘Sticky Learning’ to do just that; the humorous moniker encourages Cundall’s GCSE pupils to be unafraid of challenging work. ‘Sticky Learning’ is just one element of the wider school focus on academic and emotional resilience, which also encourages pupils to boost their revision on a daily basis. It’s impossible to avoid the reminders as they can be found in every classroom, in corridors and even on the back of toilet doors!
Clare Stovin, Assistant Headteacher at Cundall Manor: “This year our focus has been on getting pupils to recognise the importance of regularly revisiting their work to further their knowledge and understanding. Pupils often tell me they didn't know how to do this. Together with Sue we came up with the idea of creating a range of exam "booster" activities that pupils can use across a range of subjects, some are also subject specific. Our slogan "Do you boost?" is now used regularly in all lessons and has been shared with parents to help reinforce the message.”
We will all recognise the image of a pupil happily highlighting their notes in a rainbow of colours and then ticking that topic off their to-do list.
Our working memory can only hold around 7 pieces of information at any one time, so we need to do something with that information to move it into our long term memory before we lose it. But highlighting is not the answer. We are more likely to remember information if we can link it to our existing knowledge or experience, creating chains of meaning (schema).
Therefore, a higher impact strategy could involve drawing a diagram or a flow chart to link the pupil’s new learning to their existing knowledge of a topic. Adding questions and possible answers (which the pupil might need to go and research) to the diagram is likely to further strengthen their understanding, building more secure neural connections for long-term memory.
The simple message is – if you want to remember a piece of information, you need to actually do something with it! This revision method is the first step to enabling pupils to make the pieces fit the jigsaw of an exam question. Teachers have long been providing success criteria to help pupils take ownership of their learning. The next step is to invite pupils to unpack existing exam responses in order to derive their own success criteria. This metacognitive approach pushes the pupils to really consider what makes an excellent response and encourages them to then draw together appropriate content in a structured manner to have a go themselves. A note of caution though: They may find this hard. As we’ve already explored, for learning to ‘stick’, there has some degree of intellectual grappling.
Therefore, pupils need to start this process early. But they need to start early for another, more simple reason anyway: The average GCSE pupil will sit between 25-30 exams over about five weeks next summer. That means that some days they’ll sit an exam in the morning and another in the afternoon, and possibly the same the next day. That is exhausting, not just mentally and emotionally, but physically too. Our job as educators isn’t just to teach our subject’s exam content; it’s to teach pupils ‘exam stamina’. You don’t go from a 5k run to a marathon in a couple of weeks and neither should pupils expect to go from doing no revision until Easter to successfully sitting 25-30 exams half a term later.
Last Spring the Chartered College of Teaching published a useful revision model called The Memory Clock:
For optimum revision effectiveness I propose the following:
September to October half-term: Revision boosters of 10-20 minutes per day November to Christmas: The Memory Clock one hour revision sessions (the revision boosters can form the first section of this model) Christmas to February half-term: Increase the middle section of The Memory Clock model to incorporate a section of an exam paper 2-3 times a week, but take a 30 minute break before completing the last part of the model February to Easter: Increase the middle section of The Memory Clock model to incorporate a full exam paper 1-2 times a week, but take a 30 minute break before completing the last part of the model Easter to May half-term: Increase the middle section of The Memory Clock model to incorporate a full exam paper 2-3 times a week, but take a 30 minute break before completing the last part of the model.
This revision plan creates the capacity – in terms of both time and habit-forming - for pupils to revise topics repeatedly throughout the year.
We know from years of research into memory for learning that ‘distributed practice’ and ‘spaced retrieval’ provide the conditions for more secure retention in the long-term memory as does varying the order of topics within a pupil’s revision plan. This is an area where we can really add value to our pupils’ revision experience. Throughout this term, I have been chatting to pupils about how they organise their revision timetables; unsurprisingly, they tend to schedule their favourite subjects early in the week and as the first session of the day, leaving the really unpleasant, tricky stuff until last. While this is completely understandable, it only makes matters worse. The greatest energy is needed to grapple with the hard stuff, so it makes sense to put this at the start of the schedule and plan a break after it before moving onto the topics with which pupils feel more at ease.
It’s what time management guru Brian Tracy calls “eating the ugly frog”. Again, Cundall Manor has a resplendent display of exceptionally ugly frogs displayed throughout their Year 11 classrooms!
I would argue that the most important thing to consider is that everyone – pupils, teachers and parents – needs to understand what makes effective revision so that there is a practical and emotional support system around each pupil. In today’s landscape of reformed GCSEs and high-stakes exams, there are no shortcuts to revising thoroughly; however, as illustrated here, some methods are certainly more efficient than others. So let’s put our pupils in the driving seat and give them the support they deserve •
Sue O'Leary-Hall is the founder and Academic Director of Thesan Coaching & Training. Her team includes psychologists and academics, who distil the latest research into practical strategies to improve pupil outcomes. Thesan provides bespoke, cost-effective CPD for teachers and school leaders as well as pupil workshops and parent seminars. https://thesancoachingandtraining.com/
Memory Clock Graphic: Creaby C, Mouncey K and Roskilly K (2018) Learning to learn: Using evidence to enhance knowledge retention and outcomes.Impact 2: 28-29. Reproduced with permission of the Chartered College of Teaching.