Research School Network: Alleviating the revision burden

Alleviating the revision burden

by Huntington Research School
on the

I think revision is basically cheating. If you don’t know the stuff from your lessons then it’s your problem.’

I remember these words (or something approximating them) being spoken to me by a friend at school before we faced our year 11 mocks. Let’s be honest, from Tim’s mouth it was a bizarre exercise in self-justification as to why he had not done any revision.

It was also a statement rooted in his inherent confidence that he would be just fine in these mocks: he came from a middle class family; he read for pleasure (lots); he had travelled to three continents; and he had developed all the metacognitive skills he needed to ensure thorough understanding just from attending the lessons.

Plus, he didn’t even seem to try that hard in lessons!

Years later I reflect on those words, and I wonder if actually Tim was hinting at a utopian world where we could spare pupils from the stress and anxiety that seems to go hand in hand with revision. Did he know more than he was letting on about the potential glories of spacing (nicely explained here by the Learning Scientists)?

The ideal that a curriculum could be so well planned and delivered across the five years of secondary school to enable deep understanding and concrete retention of all the necessary knowledge to render revision unnecessary is, of course just that, an ideal. But there is surely still the opportunity to alleviate some of the heartache for pupils facing examinations.

Year 11 have just completed their mocks at our school. I suspect many others around the country have done the same, or are about to embark on them as a pre-Christmas treat – or maybe they lie a bit further ahead as a welcome back’ gift in the new year. I set my class revision as homework (as if one of those concepts isn’t repellent enough to some pupils, I had grouped them together!). I had broken the revision down to smaller tasks: quizzes, annotating exercises, paragraph scaffolds etc. I had even suggested timings for each activity.

Did they do any?

Well the mock scores suggest what I probably knew anyway about which pupils went away and did some revision. It’s one of those activities, like homework and reading outside of school, that tends to exacerbate the gap between pupils from more advantaged backgrounds.

We can go some way to redressing this through explicit direction on revision strategies such as chunking and quizzing to ensure that if revision does happen it is done in a meaningful way that helps build the confidence of pupils.

However, if we really want to get closer to Tim’s ideal then we must think further ahead than the three weeks before the mocks when I first mentioned the R’ word to my year 11s. If the mocks provide an opportunity for pupils to experience an exam situation, then they also provide a prompt for teachers to really craft the final months, using some of these strategies:

Spaced practice – practice is broken up into a number of short sessions – over a longer period of time.

Retrieval practice – Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge out” and examine what we know. Just like exercise, learning works the same way: no pain, no gain”. This is sometimes referred to as desirable difficulties and can often take the form of low stakes quizzing.

Interleaving – Scatter common problem types throughout your teaching, mixing up the topics.

We might do all of this and yet of course Tim would no doubt still not be satisfied. The ideal would require a similar approach to all the curriculum, while of course factoring in sufficient flexibility so plans could be adapted based on formative assessments.

He doesn’t ask for much does he?

Nonetheless, I quite like Tim’s unintentionally insightful vision of a world without revision. If it removed just a few percent of the inevitable exam season stress, thoughtful distributed practice seems something infinitely worthwhile.


Useful Wider Reading on Memory For Learning: 

Brainworld – How do we remember and why do we often forget?

Understanding working memory: a classroom guide

Memory Platforms, by Andy Tharby

Retrieval practice Guide 

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