How should students revise? A brief guide

One of the biggest lessons from research is that many students don’t really know how to study. Various studies have shown that students rate re-reading and highlighting as the most effective ways of revising when in reality they are often a waste of time giving an illusion of competence in the short term at the expense of long term gains.

Students may spend large amounts of additional time studying despite no gain in later memory for the items, a phenomenon called ‘‘labour-in-vain’’ during learning (Nelson & Leonesio,1988). Recent research with educationally relevant materials has shown that repeatedly reading prose passages produces limited benefits beyond a single reading. (Karpicke, Roediger, Butler, 2009)

In contrast, retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving are some of the most productive ways of revising material but how many students are familiar with this? I think there is often a tendency to focus too much on what teachers are doing and less on what students are doing.

Recently I got the chance to talk to some year 10 students from across our partnership of schools about study skills and I put together a brief guide to help them. The idea was to introduce them to five powerful approaches to studying in a language they can understand with the opportunity to apply them to a period of revision designed by them. All materials are below.

Thanks to the brilliant Olivier Cavigioli for the illustrations and design.

Wellington College Study Guide-page-002

Wellington College Study Guide-page-003

Wellington College Study Guide-page-004

 

Wellington College Study Guide-page-005

 

Wellington College Study Guide-page-006 (2)

Once you talk students through these key principles, you can get them to plan their revision using a revision planner like this depending on how much time they have left:

 

study timetable template pdf-page-001You can download all materials here:

Wellington College Study Guide

study timetable template

 

 

Further reading:

Dunlosky et al, ‘Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology’ 2013

Karpicke, Roediger, Butler ‘Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own?’ 2009

Koriat, Bjork ‘Illusions of Competence in Monitoring One’s Knowledge During Study’ 2005

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Revision – use these approaches with students!

Top 10 Revision Strategies

In Evidence in Education, Memory for Learning, Teaching & Learning by Alex Quigley4 Comments

Year after the year, the same pressures attend exam revision. Each year teachers try the old favourites, alongside a few new revision strategies to keep our students interested. Happily, we now have a wealth of evidence to support some revision strategies over others as we approach the revision stretch.

We know that students are not the most reliable when it comes to judging their own learning, with regular self-testing proving the most effective antidote. We also know that some strategies, like re-reading and using highlighters, are largely ineffective, whereas as quizzing does the trick. We know that a little ‘deliberate difficulty‘ may well prove a good thing for revision, and that ‘cramming‘ is inferior to ‘distributed practice‘ (or spreading revision out over time), when it comes to remembering.

We should be careful not outsource an approach to revision to a company promoting the following strategies, or to puff up the confidence of our students. A successful approach to revision needs to be deeply rooted in subject knowledge, and sustained over time, so subject teachers need to explicitly teach the strategy, model it, and offer guided practice before we expect our students to use them effectively.

1. Quizzing. Good old fashioned quizzing is an ideal vehicle to get students self-testing, which is proven to be a robust revision strategy, so that students can calibrate their knowledge and remembering. There are various types of quizzes, of course, such as short answer quizzing, multiple choice or a hybrid of the two, with different question types suiting different purposes.

2. Flashcards. Flashcards are a very familiar tool used by students. Crucially, however, too many students fail to use them for effective self-testing – (only 30% in this research). Clearly, we need to train students to design, or find, effective revision flashcards, before then training them in their use. Students should also beware dropping flashcards they think they know.

3. Graphic organisers. Students need to be active in revision, not just reading their notes and doing some colouring in with a rainbow of highlighters. Graphic organisers are a handy vehicle to get students reconstructing their revision topics, making meaningful links and connections (in cognitive science, this is labelled the ‘generation effect‘).

4. Cornell note-taking. Another strategy that utilises the ‘generation effect‘ is the well-known note-taking approach: the Cornell method. Named after the US university, this strategy gets students thinking metacognitively, asking questions, noting key terms, and summarising the content being revised.

5. Exam wrappers. This helpful feedback strategy, labelled ‘exam wrappers‘ because they wrap around information on how the student has revised, offers important information for the teacher to help diagnose how effective, or extensive (or not), revision has proven. Also, it can prove a good way to help puncture student over-confidence in their revision. See these online examples HERE and you can find a useful Word template HERE.

6. ‘Just a minute’. A long time favourite strategy of mine, ‘Just a Minute’ takes the classic radio game and adapts it to almost any topic, text, or examination revision term. Put simply, students have to talk for a minute on the given term/topic – no pauses, no hesitations. Slips or repetitions or micro pauses lose a ‘life’ – three strikes and you’re out. This strategy harnesses the ‘self explanation effect‘. In short, if you can elaborate on a topic and explain it well, you have retrieved it from memory – a good revision act – as well as likely consolidating it too.

7. ‘Prepare to teach’. Similar to ‘Just a Minute‘, the ‘Prepare to teach‘ strategy involves the common idea of getting students to teach a peer a topic/term from their revision. Once more, it gets students to elaborate on their knowledge. Even expecting to teach appears to have a positive impact on students learning material, so this seemingly inconsequential tweak can have very beneficial effects.

8. ‘Select, elect’. Another revision strategy that gets students thinking hard about their revision is ‘Select, Elect‘. In simple terms, you get students to  ‘select’ the most salient facts, ideas, concepts, or terms, from a given revision topic, before then asking them to ‘elect’ what they deem the most significant knowledge or idea/concept that they need to understand for their examination. This gets students actively engaging with their revision material, whilst being metacognitive about what is the most salient information they need to remember.

9. Topic ranking. Remember that students are often not the best judge of their own revision and how  effective it may or not be. By getting students to rank their own knowledge of their topics being revised, they deploy the important metacognitive strategy of evaluating their learning. Though they will likely be inaccurate – indeed overoptimistic – in their judgments of their knowledge and learning, it still helps students better calibrate their revision and monitor their ongoing progress.

10. Past questions. Ok, so no rewards here for originality: students need to practice examination questions, over and over, well spaced over time. The effect of exploring worked examples or exam answers, as well as writing their own, helps students process, practice and refine their revision to meet the parameters of exam success.

Related reading:

The revision collection by Alex Quigley

Each year we are all faced with the nerve-shredding, tolerance-stretching spell that is revision. It never seems to get any easier. Each group of students proves a unique, gnarly challenge as we go about training, convincing, supporting, and more.

It has proven a consistent topic for me to write about, and has drew a lot of readers, and it has helped to store and filter through my ideas on the topic, from insights from cognitive science, to the subtle psychology of independent study and revision… Oh – and the frustrations of being a tired teacher!

Here is my blog collection which I hope proves useful:

The Long and Winding Road (of Revision). This 2017 blog, written for Teach Secondary magazine, has a sequence of practical evidence-based revision strategies to survey.

Exam Revision and Overconfidence. This 2017 blog observes the crucial important of accurate judgements of learning in the revision process, looking at some handy strategies.

Eat, Sleep, Revise, Repeat. This 2016 blog, again written for Teach Secondary magazine, surveys the available evidence.

Have you got revision all wrong? This TES article is fresh from March 2017 and questions our approaches to after school revision and more and looks at how better to arrange revision.

Why I Hate Highlighters! This 2015 blog is one of my most read and most debated. It is based on the evidence that highlighters are badly used as a learning tool (despite our beliefs!).

Effective Revision Strategies. This 2013 blog is my first attempt at collating and translating the mass of cognitive science evidence on memory and learning.

‘Revision – what revision?’ This blog from 2014 looks at the evidence around students actually doing some revision – or not, as the case may be.

Effective Exam Revision – Drill Baby Drill. This blog from back in 2013, looks at the importance of ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘drilling’ in the revision process.

Boring but Important. This blog from 2017, admits the truth that not all children are inspired to learn all the time – revision is a particular area of weakness. I go onto share some ideas.

Memory for Learning – Top 10 Tips. This blog from 2016 does what it says on the tin. It has lots of evidence-informed strategies that you can consider, apply and evaluate.

The Trick of Teaching. This 2015 post looks at the singular strategy of getting students to teach other students (or at least prime them to think they will) to better remember the content.

Confidence Tests and Exam Wrappers. This 2016 post presents what I think is an essential revision and learning strategies: exam wrappers.

And finally, though it isn’t on my blog, I am very proud of this Star Wars inspired revision article for the TES – ‘How Star Wars Can Teach Students To Master Exams‘.

This is the revision reading you are looking for! 

Revision

Revision

I have collated some information on revision that has been taken from a number of places but  if you have anything to add please let me know.

Yr11 Assembly delivered Feb 2016

An excellent Revision Powerpoint on revision to be used with students and parents from Chris Hildrew. It brings together what works with clear examples.

Revision picture

The gain some clarity please read the full document which can be downloaded from here

rev3

Three commonly used revision techniques that appear to have very little impact on learning were:

  • Highlighting texts
  • Re-reading
  • Summarising text

The reason these are so ineffective, is that they require very little cognitive work…and it’s cognitive work i.e. thinking about things, that makes us remember things.  It’s easy to see why are they are popular with students though.  They are very low demand, make the students feel as if they are ‘doing revision’ and for highlighting and summarising, there is a product for their efforts.  They can come bounding downstairs from their bedroom and show mum/dad highlighted sheets of text of revision that they have ‘done’.  Gratifying? yes. effective? No.

So having established what doesn’t work, we then explored 5 techniques that appear to work well and make a difference to learning.

1. Practice Testing

This technique is pretty straightforward – students keep testing themselves (or each other) on what they have got to learn. This technique has been shown to have the highest impact in terms of supporting student learning. Some ways in which students can do this easily:

  • Create some flashcards, with questions on one side and answers on the other – and keep testing yourself.
  • Work through past exam papers – many can be acquired through exam board websites.
  • Simply quiz each other (or yourself) on key bits of information.
  • Create ‘fill the gap’ exercises for you and a friend to complete.
  • Create multiple choice quizzes for friends to complete.

2. Distributed Practice

Rather than cramming all of their revision for each subject into one block, it’s better to space it out – from now, through to the exams. Why is this better? Bizarrely, because it gives them some forgetting time. This means that when they come back to it a few weeks later, they will have to think harder, which actually helps them to remember it. Furthermore, the more frequently you come back to a topic, the better you remember it.

revforget

The graph above demonstrates this, by returning to a topic and reviewing it, you remember it for longer.

3. Elaborate Interrogation

One of the best things that students can do (either to themselves or with a friend) to support their revision is to ask why an idea or concept is true – and then answer that why question. For example;

  • In science, increasing the temperature can increase the rate of a chemical reaction….why?
  • In geography, the leisure industry in British seaside towns like Barry Island in South Wales has deteriorated in the last 4 decades….why?
  • In history, in 1929 the American stock exchange collapsed. This supported Hitler’s rise to power….why?

So, rather than just trying to learn facts or ideas by reading them over and over, students should get into the habit of asking themselves why these things are true.

4. Self Explanation

Rather than looking at different topics from a subject in isolation, students should try to think about how this new information is related to what they know already. This is where mind- maps might come in useful – but the process of producing the mind map, is probably more useful than the finished product (not convinced about the focus put on colours, shape of branches etc.). So, they should think about a key central idea (the middle of the mind map) and then how new material, builds on the existing knowledge in the middle.

Alongside this, when they are solving a problem e.g. in maths, they should explain to someone the steps they took to solve the problem.

5. Interleaved Practice

When students are revising a subject, the temptation is to do it in ‘blocks’ of topics. Like below:

revinter1

The problem with this is, is that it doesn’t support the importance of repetition – which is so important to learning. So rather than revising in ‘topic blocks’ it’s better to chunk these topics up in their revision programme and interleave them:

revinter2

In Summary:

willingham-quote1

This quote from Daniel Willingham pretty much sums up the process of learning – we remember things when we have to think about them.  So when supporting students with revision we should be doing more of the following:

  • Testing.
  • Spacing it out.
  • Keep asking ‘why’?
  • Building on what they know.
  • Getting them to explain their steps in problem solving.

These revision strategies will be shared with Y11 students during an assembly.  The hope is that if students and staff are discussing and using the same techniques, that have been shown to work, we’ll have a common language to use in terms of revision.  Furthermore, by telling students that these techniques have a track record of success, we will hopefully reduce some of their anxieties around revision and exams.

Resources:

Revision assembly

Revision Toolbox by Pete Sanderson @LessonToolbox – please share with your students.

Revision toolbox