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Five tips for supporting independent GCSE revision

If we want pupils to focus on GCSE revision, we need to teach them how to learn independently, suggests this head of year, who has some suggestions for how to make that happen

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If we want pupils to focus on GCSE revision, we need to teach them how to learn independently, suggests this head of year, who has some suggestions for how to make that happen

Many pupils really struggle with revision. That's not much of a surprise, because revision is hard. It is hard to know where to start, hard to know what to do and hard to resist the siren song of the phone or TV. Simply expecting pupils to get on and revise independently is unrealistic; we need to teach them how to be independent first.

1. Show them where to begin

The first barrier to effective revision is knowing just where to start. The amount of content a pupil has covered in two or three years of their GCSE course can seem vast. The temptation can be for them to think of a topic they remember covering and to decide to revise that one. The problem with that is that they end up revising the topics they remember best and can’t revise the ones they have forgotten completely.

For this reason, it is useful to give pupils a learning checklist of everything they need to know for each topic. They can then easily identify the areas they are least confident about and start with those.

2. Teach them what not to do

The biggest issue with revision is how much of it is completely ineffective. Pupils can spend hours painstakingly copying out notes from one place to another, highlighting keywords and reading over their exercise books. None of this is likely to make a difference, because these methods don't require much thought. They are too easy to have a real impact on how much information pupils can remember.

We need to teach pupils why these methods don’t work or we will find they reach for them out of comfort. It is just human nature.

3. Give them GCSE revision alternatives

Once we have clearly explained what not to do we need to give pupils alternative approaches that do work: methods that make them think hard and recall information. This will make it stick. 

Here are some ideas:

  • Explain that self-testing with the help of quizzes really helps with recall. Provide access to quizzes pupils can use or direct them to where they can find appropriate quizzes online.
  • Make sure there are past papers or specimen papers available for pupils to complete without looking at their notes.
  • Develop your learning checklists into specific tasks that pupils can do. Ours say things like “describe the atmospheric circulation model” and “with the use of a case study, explain how patterns of trade change over time”.

4. Break the course into chunks

As I mentioned earlier, the amount of content in many courses can seem overwhelming. Ideally, revision should be an ongoing part of the course where pupils revise for short, low-stakes quizzes on previous topics throughout the year. Explain that their motto should be: keep up, don't catch up.

If possible, try to break the course up into small, manageable chunks that pupils can revise several of in a week. We want to teach them not to focus on just one topic, but to interleave different topics to allow for more repetition of key ideas.

5. Keep supporting pupils in class

Independent revision might be our end goal, but most pupils will still need a lot of support to get there. They will need constant reminders in class about what to do and where to find the information. Encourage them to bring in the work they have done and mark it live alongside them. This is much more powerful than a few scribbled annotations handed back a couple of days later (and quicker for you, too).

We need to remember that people don’t just know how to revise. As with so much else, it is something that has to be taught or we will look for the easiest way through. So take the time to teach study skills and slowly build their independence.

Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College and tweets @EnserMark. His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, will be published by Crown House in early 2019

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