The recent proliferation in teachers becoming engaged with academic literature, notably in cognitive science, and its accompanying impact in the classroom is exceptional and undeniable. Conferences such as ResearchEd and the rise of the Chartered College, concomitant with the explosion of teacher networks on social media sites such as Twitter, has led to an explosion of ideas being shared, discussed, and debated over the past few years which has advanced the profession enormously.
Indeed, retrieval practice, worked examples, dual coding, elaboration, generation, concrete examples, starting each lesson with a review of prior learning, interleaving, spacing content, understanding the sequencing of topics, ensuring current knowledge builds on prior knowledge, and ideas surrounding substantive, disciplinary and hinterland knowledge, now appear to be commonplace within many curricula across the country. But are these advancements overshadowed by our students’ ineffective revision habits?
I do worry that much of the work on curriculum development that has been discussed most frequently within the profession is fruitless without an adequate model of effective exam preparation. The notion that if we take note of all the developments in cognitive science, structure our curriculums based on this knowledge, start each lesson with a ‘Do Now’, and expect results to look after themselves with only the occasional ‘Walking-Talking mock’ here and there is absurd. Yet this is the approach I see taking shape in many schools.
We know that, without guidance, students are likely to choose ineffective revision strategies, such as rereading and cramming (Karpicke, Butler and Roediger, 2009). We also know that students may start by using more effective techniques, but then lose motivation, reverting to less effective means of revision over time (Blasiman et al., 2017). So, something must be done to rectify this problem. With this model, I propose a way to ensure our students are taught effective methods of revision, to ensure recent developments in curricula design and lesson delivery are not wasted but built upon further to achieve ever-increasing rates of student success.
The model I discuss here is applicable to all cohorts within a school environment, not solely those facing public examinations at the end of the academic year. I propose that revision itself should be a multi-year strategy within your school, with techniques being shared at every opportunity to students by all teachers. Only with all teachers knowing effective revision techniques themselves and sharing these without reservation to students on a regular basis, will you be able to transform the culture of effective revision within your setting.
The model deliberately begins with the rather mundane step of simply ‘starting’. For students, there are myriad distractions so simply starting is an enormous first step for them to overcome. I envision revision as an enormous flywheel that takes a mammoth effort to get started. Once moving, though, momentum builds, making it easier and easier for subsequent revision sessions to begin. What is more, once students begin to see the positive impact that their revision is having, revision becomes slightly more enjoyable as they can see that their efforts are being rewarded with increased knowledge retention.
Ideally, students should begin the revision process early (I argue for students sitting public examinations to start in January), so that the benefits of ‘spaced practice’ can materialise. Spaced practice is where material is reviewed on separate occasions, with a significant time period between learning sessions (Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel, 2014). By starting the revision process early, students maximise the potential effect of spacing material out, increasing the likelihood of greater retention of material over a longer period of time. The danger with starting too late, then, is that the effects of spacing would become negligible at best.
Starting the revision process in January may seem extremely early for some within the profession, but I suggest that this would only need to be a gentle introduction to the revision process, in effect starting the ball rolling. It could simply include identifying material that needs to be learnt. It starts the flywheel moving and ensures students are consciously aware of the importance of revision for their upcoming examinations from an early stage.
I think it would be fair to say that, although the joy of learning becomes infectious, revision can itself be quite a tedious, and monotonous process. It is therefore important that once students start revising, that they stick to it, especially when students are more inclined to have a ‘day off’ or stop. As a result, I would strongly suggest that students are supported in how to devise their own study schedule. Indeed, research shows us that we are much more inclined to follow through with a task if we have written it down in a plan first (Duhigg, 2013). Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, only 11-13% of students routinely make any form of study schedule (Kornell and Bjork; 2007). There is, then much work to do in ensuring our students are aware of the benefits of creating such a schedule.
Furthermore, by generating small wins, one can create further small wins, creating a self-generation model of improvement. Creating the plan, though, is the easy part. Sticking to a plan requires a different level of willpower. For students, revision has to compete with their smartphone, the buzz of notifications, the ‘Fear of missing out’, the lure of Netflix, gaming, meeting friends, or simply doing anything else that is slightly more enjoyable than revising (even tidying their bedrooms!).
Students, therefore, must be explicitly taught how to create an effective routine. For example, during the holiday periods, I would tell students that to achieve the highest grades they should be revising for six hours a day, divided into 3 x 2-hour chunks. I would instruct them to turn off their phones, and any technology, and leave it in another room to avoid temptation. I would tell them to stick to their revision schedule, that prioritises their range of subjects as this will allow the best coverage to maximise their outcomes. I would also recommend that students stick to one subject per 2-hour block of time.
I would stress to students that 6 hours, although it seems ridiculously high when it is heard for the first time, is not that long within a day during the holidays for the long term reward that their outcomes can achieve. If students are committed, 2 x 2-hour sessions can be completed before lunch with a suitable break included. One further 2-hour session at some point after lunch leaves the rest of the afternoon/evening to do as they wish in whatever format they wish to do.
Importantly, as is human nature, students will want to study the subjects that they perform the best in. This is to be expected, but we must ensure that students understand that it is important to revise all of their subjects in sufficient depth. For the very highest attaining students, students may be on track to achieve a Grade 9 in their ‘best’ subject with the revision they have already done, yet still want to revise that subject more. They must be informed that although this may improve their mark slightly in the test, it will not improve their grade, so their time will be best spent improving one of their weaker subjects.
Importantly, removing distractions and creating a distraction free environment. But as Duhigg (2013) states, willpower is like a muscle. The more we exercise our willpower, the easier it becomes for subsequent sessions. Initially, a 2-hour chunk of time will feel like an eternity to students. But after a few sessions, students will be amazed at how much work and revision they can achieve. They can also mix up the activities they use within the 2-hour block, remaining within their subject, to ensure a bit of variety and also to enable different skills to be exercised and practised.
Highlighting gets a very bad press within the field of education, yet is it really that useless? In their seminal paper, Dunlosky et al. (2013) argue that highlighting is actually a really good way to identify what knowledge must be learnt. But they continue to say, that highlighting is only the start of the process and learners should then go on to use more effective learning strategies after that.
I would advocate students highlighting salient points from their notes as the first step of the revision process. Then, I would expect students to process the information and write the points in their own words onto a flashcard. This process of writing their own revision cards, processing the information themselves, and connecting the ideas to their own mental model is a crucial part of the learning process. Without this processing, perhaps being given the cards already printed, is likely to lead to inferior results (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).
Although writing and processing information when writing flashcards is crucial, it is no guarantee that students will be able to retain any information from them. Indeed, poor use of flashcards is often the source of frustration for students when they do poorly in an exam. When you subsequently ask students what they did with their flashcards, they often say they just wrote them out and finished there, missing the most important element of using flashcards.
The most effective part of using flashcards is testing yourself and using them to carry out a process called successive relearning. Successive relearning is where an individual learns information up to one correct recall, and then correctly recalls the information in three to four subsequent sessions (Rawson and Dunlosky, 2012; Dunlosky et al., 2015).
In practice, for effective successive relearning to take place, I would advocate the Look/Cover/[Write]/Check method. Firstly, students would look at a part of a flashcard, and then perhaps by closing their eyes or looking away, repeat to themselves what the missing information is for that specific card. They would then check their answer. Importantly, if the information is correctly recalled the first time with minimal thought, I would place it in a separate pile for review at a later date. Where the learner is more hesitant about the correct answer, or simply doesn’t know, I would put the card to the back of the current deck and keep going through the flashcards eventually coming to the same card once more within the same study session. The rest of the revision session with flashcards is used to test the lesser well-known information, ideally until all information has been correctly recalled at least once. After a period of time, to benefit from spaced practice, the process should be repeated three to four times for maximal benefit (Rawson and Dunlosky, 2012; Dunlosky et al., 2015).
Over time, students will be amazed at how much information they can remember using this effective revision technique.
In essence, factual recall is linked to using flashcards. Rather obviously, without sufficient knowledge to solve an examination problem, students will simply not be able to answer it. The breadth and depth of public examinations students will sit should not be readily dismissed. Indeed, there are thousands of pieces of information that students will need to learn and retrieve automatically to enable them to access the highest grades.
We know that the capacity of our working memory to hold information is fixed, so the more information we can successfully retrieve from our long-term memory, enables us to more accurately be able to solve problems. Moreover, there are numerous studies that highlight the importance of knowledge for the capacity to successfully comprehend various texts (Arya et al., 2011)
With written subjects, many of the strongest answers will follow a familiar structure and style. The content, of course, plays a massive part, but within a coherent and easily replicable structure. So, as teachers, we must teach students not to ‘copy the content’ necessarily, but to ‘copy the structure.’
By ensuring students have ready access to a writing frame (a replicable structure with suggested sentence starters for each paragraph), students build automaticity over time, significantly improving the coherence, flow, and ultimately grade of their work.
Writing frames can be as simple as insisting that students ‘leave a line’ between paragraphs, suggesting works start with a thesis statement which is then interwoven into all subsequent paragraphs or using sentence starters to help structure their argument.
Past Papers, termed ‘Practice tests’ in the academic literature, is one of the most effective learning techniques for revision (Balota et al., 2006; Dunlosky et al., 2013). As with all subjects, exam boards only have a limited domain in which to devise examination questions, so it is no surprise that the type and content of questions is often repeated on a regular basis.
Practice testing helps students understand what topic each question is referring to (termed question discrimination within the literature), incorporates the ‘testing effect’ improving students’ knowledge of the domain, highlights what topics students need to develop, familiarises students with the format of the test they will sit reducing extraneous load in the examination, but importantly sets the standard for what is expected of them.
Past Papers truly are the golden step within my model of effective exam preparation, and I advocate for a significant leap in the number, frequency, and completion of practice papers within schools. Yet their use in schools is massively underutilised (Rawson and Dunlosky, 2012; Dunlosky et al., 2013). Testing, in general, has often been poorly perceived within education as being ‘high-stakes’ and accountability heavy, yet the direct and indirect impact of practice testing is vast.
Moreover, Sweller (1988) highlights the guidance fading effect, whereby as individuals become progressively more knowledgeable, instruction should transfer from being more didactic (when students are novices) to more problem-solving based (when students are experts). Kalyuga et al. (2003) note the ‘expertise reversal effect’ which also suggests that once individuals become expert, problem-solving activities may be more beneficial than simply instructional ones. This debate has led to some suggesting past papers should not be used too soon, when students are still novices. Although there are views either way, I would advocate that full past papers should be used as soon as the course has been completed. This way, students benefit from spacing their practice, are as close to experts as they will be in their specific examination subject, and maximise the amount of time they can complete as many practice papers as possible before taking their final exam.
I would also stress that completing past papers must be accompanied with feedback to students so that they understand what they have done correctly, and what needs further study. Feedback can be personalised from the teacher, self-marked from rubrics or the examination mark scheme, or from a technique I discuss later, ‘video walkthroughs’.
Finally, there does seem to be an increasing trend of teachers completing ‘Walking Talking Mocks’, where students are often gathered in a school hall and complete a past examination paper, stopping every few questions for a teacher to go through the answer. Although they do offer an opportunity for teachers to explain finer points of examination technique, key findings from examiner reports, as well as another opportunity to practice exam questions, I propose video walkthroughs as a much better technique for effective exam preparation.
Certainly for public examinations, such as GCSEs and A-Levels, I propose ‘video walkthroughs’ as a much more effective way of students preparing for their exams than using Walking-Talking Mocks. Video walkthroughs are recorded videos of teachers going through an examination paper themselves, writing down their answers, and also talking through key points as they go.
Although there is no current research on the effectiveness of video walkthroughs, I think they are an extremely beneficial way of students improving their exam performance. The teacher can identify key points regarding exam technique, common misconceptions, ‘go-to’ responses, as well as offering suggestions about the best responses. As the videos are recorded and uploaded onto the internet, they offer several benefits; once created they are online forever reducing further workload, they should be used at home maximising in-class lesson time in school, and they are recorded so students can fast-forward, rewind, pause at their own pace bespoke to the questions where they need additional help.
Video walkthroughs are easy to produce, and can simply be recorded using a visualiser, where they can be uploaded onto an online channel. They help build student metacognition, listening to how an expert would approach questions, and ‘tuning in’ to this way of thinking, significantly improving their responses to future questions. They ensure students get feedback on their assessments bespoke to their own need, where they can focus their efforts that relate to them and their development areas the most.
Students are also likely to find it significantly easier to follow a teacher talking through a paper online, rather than looking through dense mark schemes and examiner reports to find the information themselves. Although it is a disservice to think students can’t digest these documents themselves, I advocate that they should be used as an additional document if they believe they may have a different response to the one suggested in the video or are looking to see if their answer could also be equally correct.
Video walkthroughs also ensure the onus for revising effectively is put back on the student, and not on the teacher. Students can still be held accountable for completing past papers and marking them in school, but we should be building the culture within all year groups that students need to be responsible for their learning and for improving themselves.
The research on mnemonics is scant, with Dunlosky et al. (2013) highlighting that more research is needed. Yet, I think mnemonics have significant power in helping students remember material, particularly when they generate them themselves. By generating the information themselves, students are likely to process the material more, leading to longer term retention of the material (Brown, Roediger III, McDaniel, 2014). By linking mnemonics, and generating their own links, accompanied with flashcards and using the Look/Cover/[Write]/Check method, students are much more likely to remember certain pieces of information.
By incorporating this technique with flashcards, I think the impact for student revision can be extremely impactful.
We have been telling each other stories since time immemorial. And Willingham (2010) notes that stories are what we term ‘psychologically privileged.’ We enjoy hearing stories. When a story starts, we have a keen desire to know how it will end. We must, therefore, ensure that we use the power of stories to help us remember key pieces of information to prepare effectively for our exams.
Related to using mnemonics, generating your own stories, making them as memorable as possible to you personally, is likely to lead to the biggest gain in remembering material over time.
In conclusion, knowledge of how to revise effectively is known by few students. We must explicitly teach students how to revise effectively and ensure our approaches in school support these methods. Every teacher, regardless of year group, should understand the most effective techniques themselves and constantly take every opportunity to reinforce them to students regardless of age.
Much of the excellent work on incorporating knowledge of cognitive science that teachers have read recently can be undone, or not fully realised, if students do not revise effectively at the end of their academic journey. Therefore, it is imperative that we, as a profession, ensure every student, regardless of background, is capable of achieving exceptionally well in their examinations through effective exam preparation.
There is nothing more demoralising for students than thinking they have revised for an exam, to see their efforts not translated into excellent exam performance. In much of these cases, they have fallen for the illusion of revision when in fact the techniques they have used are sub-optimal or at worst completely ineffective.
This model of effective exam preparation aims to outline the most significant elements to help students achieve well, and I hope it can offer teachers and students a way to help them frame their revision for their studies.
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