A Guide to Excellent Revision

Revising Effectively

“Little Jimmy just isn’t good at revision…”

In an ideal world, we would plan a sequence of lessons, teach it according to the plan, encourage lots of revision and then little Jimmy would demonstrate every last thing you’ve taught him when it came to the examination. Unfortunately, this isn’t an ideal world and for many reasons we purposefully deviate from our initial plans. Add to this the fact that Jimmy is burdened with huge volumes of information to recall, analyse and evaluate. There’s also a good chance he isn’t doing any independent learning at home. Critically, Jimmy just does not seem to “test well”, even when under less formal conditions he demonstrates deep understanding and applies skills effectively. Houston, we have a revision problem! But is there a solution?

Below I’ve identified the four key factors , in my own teaching experience, which have had the most significant positive impact on revision and consequently on examination success

1. Prioritise key topics 

In any given exam, the question setters want the candidates to demonstrate mastery of particular topics and skills. The questions they have asked in the past are usually* a good guide to what they will expect students to know in the future, so plan accordingly. If for example, an examination board had set out eight topics for students to learn but had only asked questions about seven of them so far, then that might be a trigger to focus particularly on the only unexamined topic as a priority. So, throughout your sequence of lessons, ensure you give extra time to topics/skills that:

  • Cross over into a number of different examination questions
  • Look like they are more likely to come up this time
  • Previous students have struggled with in past examinations.

*Warning: trying to guess the questions in advance is a risky strategy. Sometimes it pays dividends, but it can also lead to damaging outcomes if content is not also revised thoroughly.

2. How to not run out of time 

Timing in examinations is frequently used by students as a reason for underperformance. However in the majority of cases that I’ve witnessed, it doesn’t really stand up to any level of scrutiny. Most of the students who cite “timing” as the reason for not finishing a paper actually spent a lot of their time in the exam writing nothing, because they were struggling to recall information. This is not a timing issue, but a memory issue.

3 methods for memorising key pieces of content include:

  • Peer Q&A – students pair up and test each other using quickfire questions
  • Cue cards – on one side students write out 3-5 bullet points summarising a topic. They do this for a number of topics, then hand them over to someone else, who will test their memory of the key bullet points.
  • Jigsaws – students create a 3×3 grid. On one side of each line, they write out a statement, keyword, case study, scholar, quote, etc. On the other side of each line, they write out a corresponding statement, definition, case study conclusion, theory name, etc. On the outer parts of the grid they can write down some red herrings, so that when it has all been cut out, they will find completing the grid more of a challenge. The higher the level of challenge, the more active the brain will be and consequently the more likely that students will be able to recall the information quickly enough.
Jigsaw Grid (Christian attitudes towards abortion and euthanasia)

3. Practise, practise, practise

Usain Bolt is the 100m world record holder. How did he become this? Clue: he didn’t just spend all of his time reading about running, drawing diagrams about running, creating calendars about when he will run in the future and watching other people run. He practised running. Over and over and over and over. Bolt knew that in order to ensure success on the day when it counted the most, he would have to work just as hard on days when it (seemed like it) counted the least. He will have “failed”, by his own standards, on so many of those practise runs that it would make many runners give up. However, he just saw these failures as another way not to do things on race day. Gradually, he cut out these mistakes and by the end of his training, he didn’t make errors anymore. He trained hard so that the race would be easy. Many of his competitors will have trained easy, but predictably their race was too hard. Students must approach their revision for examinations in exactly the same way.

4. Routine

Top performers in all professions have something in common. They typically have a morning routine during their training, which doesn’t change on the day when they need to perform under pressure at the highest level. This is true for athletes, politicians, soldiers, singers, entrepreneurs, actors, etc, etc.

Far in advance of the examination, give students an opportunity to reflect on their own morning routine and to evaluate its advantages and disadvantages with regards to their performance later in the day. Having students do this on a regular basis will help them find their own routine which works for them. Once they find their routine, encourage students to stick to it as closely as possible, particularly on the day of their examination.

In my own experience, students have benefited from this as they approach examination day. Fear of the unknown is the worst of all. But if we can our get students to reflect about every minute of their day, then some of that fear will dissipate. Some students might even see examination day as just a normal day like any other. After all, they aren’t doing anything differently.

Please share this post with other teachers – this is the “business end” of the academic year and we all need all the help we can get!

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