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GCSEs: 4 revision tips backed by research

Rereading and making notes won’t cut it. Here’s what the science says about making information stick

revision rules editorial

Looking back to my school days, it seems amazing how little advice we were given on how to revise.

I have vague memories of retrieving old exercise books from under the bed, underlining what seemed to be important points in red and occasionally making a note of something on a piece of paper, but that was it.

So it is probably no wonder that when I started teaching, my advice to my students on how to revise was sparse.

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I had worked out by then that they needed to do more than just read their notes and instead do something “active” with them like creating mind maps, model questions or summaries.

But as my understanding of how pupils learn has improved, so has the advice I give to my classes about how to revise. Here are my top four tips on getting revision right.

No notes

The biggest issue with the way I once asked pupils to revise is that they were essentially transferring information from one piece of paper to another; which they could do without engaging their brains.

It looked “active” (lots was happening), but this activity was external. For pupils to maximise the usefulness of revision, they need to practise recalling what they can from long-term memory.

The problem is, as this paper suggests, people feel they are learning more when re-studying notes than they do when trying to remember. Re-studying gives a lovely feel of confidence as you are looking at things that immediately feel familiar. When it is there in front of you, you think you know it. But this confidence is unwarranted.

I advise my pupils to recall as much as they can from memory to answer a question or complete a task like drawing a mind map, and then to check their notes to see what they miss.

Get to know the unknowns

As Donald Rumsfeld told us, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. When it comes to revision, it is all too easy for students to focus on the known unknowns, but what you know you need to know is the last thing to worry about. Students need to be revising things that they have forgotten are even part of the course.

There are a couple of ways around this. The first is personalised learning checklists, detailing everything that the course entails, that they can use to check off what they know and don’t know.

student revising gcses

While this is useful in flushing out the things they had forgotten about completely, it doesn’t help with the Dunning-Kruger effect: the human inclination to overestimate our ability at any given thing.

Another approach is to give pupils questions to answer for each item of the course. If they can’t answer something, they know they need to revise it. Although this can be time-consuming, it is the perfect opportunity for collaboration across schools and the bank of questions should be reusable for years to come.

Mix it up

Revising a topic in a block feels much easier than switching between topics. However, this difficulty may be desirable. Moving from one topic to another within one revision session may impede immediate practice but help with the final performance. It is more taxing but this makes us think that much harder. If the topics are related in some way, such as tectonics and development in geography, this switching may also help us to spot synoptic links between them that we would otherwise miss.

We need to be a little cautious here, however, as changing our focus from one thing to another does also have a cost: it taxes our ability to process information.

I suggest doing this in a very structured way and not randomly moving from one thing to another in a short space of time but moving through related but separate topics. We plan this in on their revision timetables.

Remove distractions

Despite popular perception, no one, whatever their gender, multitasks well. Switching our focus from our phone to some music and back to our revision just means we lose concentration and stop thinking about the thing we are meant to learn.

Cognitive scientist Daniel T Willingham says: “Memory is the residue of thought”; we remember that which we think about. To revise effectively, students need peace and quiet and the chance to focus on the subject at hand. Myths such as “I revise better with music playing” or “I can talk and revise at the same time” really don’t help.

Over the years, my approach to revision has changed considerably. The biggest change has been from a culture of doing (where the completion of activity was seen as the key to learning) to a culture of learning (where the thinking is key).

This seems to be working and my class' results have improved significantly. They are remembering more of their GCSE course in the sixth form and their confidence has never been better. Good revision shouldn’t be about cramming but about real learning.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is out now

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