The mocks are over. Results have been sent home. We’ve finished the cycle of feedback carousels with detailed coverage of how the paper went and some examples of good technique. We’ve also had parents’ evening to pass on the final gems of advice. It’s time to get back to the course and leave the lessons of the trial exams (such as the hard fact that more in-depth revision is needed) to sink in.
But then comes the question of lunchtime revision sessions.
I know I’m showing my age when I ask: who should actually be doing the revision? No doubt I have forgotten how hard it was to revise for exams. Perhaps I have failed to recall the input of my teachers into the organisation of knowledge into learnable chunks.
I used to think of revision as something that happened only in the run-up to the exams. Now it’s become a year-round grind. Almost before the Year 11 course has begun, the learning is being revisited ruthlessly week after week. Time off is infinitely deferred.
I do take my hat off to the teachers who have been running revision sessions after school for the last half of the academic year. Their stamina and patience must be infinite. Their heroic efforts cast the rest of us into the shade and raise expectations that all teachers will be endlessly available to assist with the slightest hiccup in the revision schedule of their charges.
The revision fetish
Revision has become just the latest fetishisation of educational processes. I don’t remember revision lessons when I was a pupil. Our teachers finished the course just before the exams – revision was our job. The War of the Spanish Succession and the final chapters of North and South were analysed in the very last lessons.
I really don’t remember anyone ever telling me how to revise. There were no highlighters, no colour coding, no mind maps, and anyone using commercial revision cards was considered desperate. I never knew anyone who went on a cramming course in the Easter holidays just before the final exams.
Fast-forward more years than I care to admit, and a whole industry has arisen around revision. Study guides are now so ubiquitous that Britain’s economy would go into instant recession if there were the merest suggestion that students should be self-reliant.
The study buddy
I'll admit it: I wasn’t completely alone in my revision efforts. It wasn’t my parents who sprang to my aid – it was far better than that. I managed to team up with the most valuable resource in the revision industry: the study buddy.
It’s a much more cost-effective resource, more companionable and more finely tuned than any robot with artificial intelligence. It makes the revision experience human and humane. And it’s a creative, conceptual, sociable learning experience.
Over the years, I have had variable success in persuading my students that the best resource available is the colleague on the course. Too often, they see their friends as distractors rather than resources. At this stage I would like to thank Nicola, who was my study buddy in the equivalent of Year 8, and Jenny, who was the equivalent in the sixth form.
With them, I had interesting discussions and debates. The different ways in which a study buddy works will evolve over time. In Year 8, ahead of the school exams, Nicola and I put together notes and tested each other. I don’t hold it against her that she outperformed me that year. In the sixth form, it was a case of not just putting together the most important information, but also having interesting conceptual discussions.
It’s this part of the process that throws light on the essence of excellent revision. Because the seeds of success for Year 8 school exams are not the same as those for A level. At Year 8, testing and learning of facts is quite enough. Mutual support that enables both revisers to sustain a demanding schedule will suffice.
On the brink of university entrance, something deeper is needed. And it’s here that I discovered that revision was about much more than going over old ground and reinforcing factual knowledge. Yes, that is a gruelling but necessary process; I’ve worn out many a carpet, pacing up and down, reciting quotations in a desperate attempt to commit them to memory. There is no substitute for this mechanical process. But what the study buddy brings to the experience is the excitement of different ideas and a challenge to assumptions that seem cast in stone. The very best mutual support comes from kicking around ideas. It’s the challenge that provides the spur for wider reading.
How do you revise for a history A level? Keep on reading; read more widely; think back on earlier ideas. How to revise for English? Read more books by the same author, see plays by the same playwright and others writing in the same era. Read some fiction about the era and check back through the bibliography. Keep thinking about alternatives, about ramifications, about modifications…and evaluate.
This is for me the secret of excellent revision and real learning. I have no wish to diss the revision industry, but in the end, that is what it is: an industry.
Has anyone ever attributed their final success to the glossy, over-coloured, over-highlighted guides that clog up the teachers’ pigeonholes week after week? Wouldn’t our students be more fruitfully occupied reading the source materials and the high-quality critical essays, researching the experiments and crucial, groundbreaking research themselves?
The study guide and revision sessions are a displacement of learning and a very secondhand proxy for the reality of great learning. We need to encourage our students to think great thoughts for themselves, to find their own paths through the mountains of notes they have accumulated. Only then will they discover the difference between cramming and learning. The one is a secondhand effort and a poor imitation of learning, the other is genuine, exciting education.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the south of England