Research School Network: Making revision sessions count With what Anders Ericsson describes as ​‘deliberate practice’

Making revision sessions count

With what Anders Ericsson describes as ​‘deliberate practice’

by Durrington Research School
on the

Up and down the country Y11 students (and their teachers) will probably be thinking about mock exams. With this comes the inevitable revision sessions that teachers will be leading. Now whether these should happen during lesson time, after school, before school or at lunchtime, is a debate to be held elsewhere – and is probably best left for schools to decide themselves. The reality is that these sessions will be happening, so how can we use the research evidence to ensure that this precious time is used efficiently? Here are some ideas of activities that we could be doing in revision sessions, that are most likely to be effective:

Deliberate Practice

The purpose of revision sessions should be to support students with what Anders Ericsson describes as deliberate practice’. He describes deliberate practice as work, not performance – so it is concentration on a specific element and repeatedly practising that element under guidance, rather than concentration on improving the end result. If you master the individual elements, the end result will take care of itself. So rather than endlessly practising full past exam papers, focus on specific types of question and get students really good at doing these. A great example of this is seen in football. FC Barcelona haven’t become great by practising whole games. They endlessly practise the fine elements of the game like passing and moving – something that is demonstrated brilliantly when they do tiki taka’ on the practice pitch – take a look here.

So rather than thinking of your revision sessions as practising a whole match, think of them as tiki-taka!

Spaced Practice

There is a very strong body of evidence from cognitive science that, perhaps counter-intuitively, we need a little forgetting time, in order to remember things. So, we are best to come back to things we are trying to learn, having left some in between – we call this spaced practice’ and you can read more on it here.

With this in mind, rather than trying cram in lots of revision sessions close together, it is best to space them apart. Thankfully most school timetables do this for us, but it is worth thinking about in our planning.

Practice testing

There is a large body of evidence that suggests the act of having to retrieve something from your memory, strengthens the memory and the long term retrieval of that information (you can read more on this here). With this in mind it makes sense to use revision sessions to do this, but going over content from throughout the course. This could include:

  • Quick retrieval quizzes at the start of the lesson.
  • Creating a mind map from memory, maybe with some cues.
  • Filling in a blank knowledge organiser.

Worked examples

Put simply, a worked example is a completed (or partly completed) problem that students can see and refer to while they are working on a similar problem. Worked examples allow students to concentrate on the specific steps they need to follow to solve a problem. They are effective because they reduce the cognitive load of a task which means that students do not have to much to hold too much new information in their working memory.

This is a good activity to use in revision sessions, as it will build student confidence with tackling a particular style of exam question. The trick of course is to slowly remove the worked example, as students become more confident and competent.

More here.

Teaching metacognitive strategies

The EEF Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning’ guidance report, is a great resource for supporting us with implementing metacognitive strategies in the classroom i.e. the way students monitor and purposefully direct their learning. The seven stage process above is really useful for structuring revision sessions, where students have to tackle a particular type of exam question. All too often, we do steps 1 – 3 and then jump straight to step 6. Instead, we need support students with memorising the strategy we have modelled to them, by questioning for example (step 4), and then model it again, but this time with some input from the students (step 5). Then they can try it alone (step 6). Step 7 is important too, because it encourages students to reflect on how useful the strategy was, and how they might apply it in the future.

Elaborative interrogation

This is the process of prompting students to generate an explanation for an explicitly stated fact. This usually involves an explanatory prompt (from the teacher, peer or self) in the form of a question e.g. Why does it make sense that….?”, Why is this true…?”, Why is [X] true and not [Y]?”, or just very simply Why?”. The evidence suggests that elaborative interrogation works because it enhances learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge (more here).

The most straight forward way to apply this during revision sessions is to make sure you are asking follow up questions, when students respond to a question.


Similarly, self-explanation can be incorporated into your questioning during these sessions. This is when students are asked to explain how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving. This has been shown to be a high impact strategy, in terms of supporting effective learning (Dunlosky, 2013).

If you are interested in developing approaches to developing the long-term memory of your students, you might be interested in our 3 day Improving Memory’ training programme.

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