I have found that my perspective on revision lessons has changed considerably over the years that I have been teaching. In those long-gone halcyon days of my youth, revision lessons largely involved me running back over the key material from part of the course before saying to the class that they needed to use the rest of the time “to revise”. They would leaf through textbooks, re-read their notes or, if feeling especially enterprising, perhaps create some flashcards. My view was largely that everyone would know what they needed to focus their revision on, and that this would be different for each pupil, and that every pupil would have their own preferred way to revise which would better for them. Therefore, my best bet was to leave them to it.
Now my position has changed. Increasingly I have seen that revision is something my pupils should be doing throughout the course, not something left to sessions in the lead up to exams. Research from Gagnon and Cormier (2019) found that distributed practice (revising previously learnt content throughout the course) was more effective than massed practice (revising at the end of the course) but also found that pupils were unwilling to do it. They also identified that female pupils were more likely to engage it in than male pupils – helping to explain the gender gap. This would suggest that revision lessons aren’t something that we as teachers should do just before an exam but should build in to our curriculum throughout the course.
The work of Gagnon and Cormier and others (such as Griffin et al, 2012) also show the importance of our pupils knowing how to revise. I tend to see revision lessons now as not only being lessons in which revision happens but as lessons in revision itself. They are lessons where I can model effective study skills through the activities I give them to do in class. This means moving away from telling pupils “to revise” and leaving them to get on with it and towards lessons where they are instructed to revise in specific ways and to learn why I am instructing them to revise in this way.
As we see in the work of Dunlosky (2013), the big problem that we have to combat is that the revision strategies pupils often like to do, such as rereading notes or highlighting material, are the ones that are least effective. They are least effective because they are not especially cognitively challenging and they are their favourite for the same reason. Effective revision strategies are hard work, they make you think, and they confront us with what we don’t know, they make us feel bad. Rereading your notes is comfortable. As you read them you think I remember this but this only lasts whilst the prompt of the open book is front of you. Doing something like self-testing, or answering practice questions, makes you struggle to remember things, it is hard work and can be despiriting to struggle, but it is this struggle that helps to make it effective.
Putting it into practice
Reading about the principles of effective revision has helped to shape my practice in the classroom. Now, I base my lessons on the same Revision Clock method that we teach our pupils to use at home. This revision clock is based on the work done at Sandringham Research School and their Memory Clock model.
This model has been useful because it reminds me that only a short part of the revision lesson should be spend reviewing what they know about a topic before they start. I might remind them of some key points, but then I model the technique that I want them to use in the lesson. If they are going to complete a mind map, I remind them how they are going to do it effectively, or I explain why we are going to try some practice questions from memory. The bulk of the lesson is then spent with them doing the revision activity that I have planned, and this will be an activity that requires them to think hard, and to use their memory. This is to ensure they are retrieving information and not just re-studying information. The final part of the lesson is when they might use their notes or a textbook to check how they did and receive feedback on any corrections they need to make. We might also use this as an opportunity to swap work with a peer so that they can see what they may have missed or how they might have approached things differently.
I have adopted the following key principles into planning revision lessons
- Revision lessons don’t happen just before an exam. They are built into the curriculum.
- Revision lessons are lessons in revision as well as time used to revise.
- Not all revision techniques are equal, pupils need to be directed towards effective strategies.
- Pupils need to be taught these strategies, in the same way they would be taught anything else.
- If left to their own devices, most pupils will chose the least taxing and least challenging, option. So don’t leave them to their own devices; ensure that they have clear structures to use when “Reviewing” information (creating mind maps, reviewing checklists, creating flashcards) and that you have modelled these with them.
Mark Enser, Head of Geography & Research Lead