Last time we worked on making sure that there is a clear focus for a 30 minute revision session so that each session is effective. We did this by prioritising which topics need attention by using the specification to decide how confident in the topic your child feels. These 30 minute sessions are successful because they are well organised and focused which usually leaves the student feeling that they have achieved something.

You can appreciate that 30 minutes can pass very quickly, so high quality is the key!  

I have really enjoyed hearing some feedback this week… One Mum told me that her son (who plays sport at national level, and therefore trains many hours per week) said that he felt that he could manage the ‘Gold Silver Bronze’ approach to revision.  Having had a busy week without much time for revision, he said that Sunday would need to be a ‘platinum day’! Another student said that she’d had a busy weekend and in terms of study, it had been ‘wood’ (i.e. Nowhere near bronze, never mind silver or gold!).  This led to a great conversation about procrastination, and talking in these terms raises awareness of what they are doing (or not doing) for the student.  

Raising a sense of ‘how much work should I have done (gold, silver, bronze) against what have I actually done’ means that your child is more likely to do some study rather than bury their in the sand.

This week, we’ll start to look at how to revise. 

I often talk to students about ‘pretend’ revision vs real revision.  Many students spend hours on activities that mean they look like they are working but they’re not being particularly effective.  Pretend revision would include highlighting notes, organising your stationary, reading through information or copying information from one source onto a note card (or similar). These are not effective because the brain does not need to be fully switched on and alert to do them. 

So what is effective revision?

The key to effective revision is doing something that makes the brain ‘sticky’ (i.e. ready to remember and use information).  If you revise by doing something that takes little mental effort, the brain is ‘slippery’ (i.e. information slides off, and is either not stored, or stored and forgotten quickly).

A helpful starting point is to decide what is the main focus of this session.  Exams test different kinds of knowledge.  These broadly fit into 3 categories:

  1. Learned facts (information you can learn and recall).  Examples would include equations, formulae, historical dates, lists, labels, definitions, quotes, and vocabulary from another language.  These questions are worth the least marks in exams, but every mark counts, so it’s worth investing time in learning these!
  2. Understanding (the ability to explain something and connect different ideas). Examples would include questions that start with ‘Explain, Describe, Discuss.  These are worth more marks, as answers demonstrate understanding, and the ability to relate that understanding to the question.
  3. Higher order thinking (the ability to think more deeply e.g. reaching a judgement about something, analysing it deeply, suggesting an alternative solution etc.)  These are worth the most marks and are most common at A level but do appear on GCSE papers.

So having found out from the specification what the student needs to know, they can take the topic, and decide to spend their 30 minutes on a particular kind of learning (remembering facts/connecting and explaining an idea/evaluating a theory and comparing it to another etc).

It’s a great idea to collate past exam questions on the specific topic you’re revising to see the kinds of question they ask (but don’t expect the questions to be repeated – it’s just to give you an idea of the ways the questions are phrased!)

Many students that I work with do ‘past paper revision’. This means that they work their way through past exam questions.  Whilst this can be great for learning how to answer specific questions, it doesn’t cover all aspects of a topic, so is a strategy that needs to be used alongside other techniques.

Learning for recall (no. 1 above) can be achieved via different strategies which include:

List information and try to create a mnemonic to help you (e.g. MASH – when you react a Metal + Acid = Salt + Hydrogen, THATCh – when evaluating a food product, think about Taste, Health, Appearance, Texture, Cost – you get the idea)

Make flash cards with word/idea/theory on front, explanation on back, and test them regularly (there are some great Apps for this!)

Put post it notes around the house with the information on them, and when you see one shut your eyes and try to recall the information

Record lists onto your phone, listen to them, recall them OUT LOUD (we often think we know more than we do – saying something out loud soon demonstrates what you know or don’t know!)

Far too many students just do this type of ‘recall’ revision.  Recall is important, but remember, it is worth the least amount of marks, so needs to be part of what is done, with other strategies alongside.

You may also find that your child gets frustrated if they forget one or two features, and don’t concentrate on feeling good about what they can remember!  They can afford to make mistakes, they don’t need to score 100% in any exam, and when we get stressed, we cant access memory, so if you’re stressing, things only get worse!  Feel good about what you can remember, and when you’re not thinking about it, you’ll recall the forgotten items!

As a parent, you can use car journeys to test recall, keeping things light (!) and reassuring your child that if they can recall some of the information then things are going OK.

To revise for understanding is more complex.  This requires organising information, making connections between ideas, and being able to apply understanding to the question.  There are various ways to do this – Memory mapping can be really helpful, but I’d like to tell you about The Cornell note taking system which is less familiar to students.

To do this, rule a page as shown here

Cornell Note Taking

Use the specification to find out the main ideas and put them in the left hand column.  Then, from memory try and write all you can remember about that main idea in the larger space to the right.  This is really important – don’t give up too quickly – you’re making your brain ‘sticky’ by trying to remember!  When you’ve exhausted your memory, add to what you have written in a different colour from a resource (revision guide/class notes/text book/website).  Think about how each idea is connected, and make a note of this too.

Summarise your work in the section at the bottom so that you have a ready to use summary of the topic.  Now try an exam question on the topic. Annotate the notes you made when you refer to the mark scheme to add in anything else you didn’t include.

What you’ll notice is that revision is never ‘reading through’ or ‘going over’ – it’s planned, purposeful, requires thinking and hard work!  (Now you can see why revising in front of the TV doesn’t work!

So this week, have a go at spotting different types of questions on past papers; which want recalled knowledge, which want an explanation?

Chat about how you could use ‘dead time’ (like car journeys) to test knowledge, and plan to revise for understanding in a different way, perhaps trying Cornell to see if that’s effective.

In summary:

  • Be clear about what you are going to revise, and what kind of learning you need to do
  • Try different strategies for learning information for recall, and test yourself out loud regularly
  • Recognise questions that test your understanding, and have a structure to use when you respond (e.g. Main idea with facts, this means that, because, and example is…)

Good luck!