Exam season is upon us and once again pupils and teachers alike are worrying about whether they are adequately prepared.
And that worry is frequently giving rise to last-minute revision sessions, squeezing out every last drop of time, in the hope of cramming in as much knowledge as possible.
But let’s be honest: these sessions have little positive impact.
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It’s like trying to prop a building up with plastic straws, or cram a whole two-week holiday suitcase of knowledge into an overnight city break carry-on case. It is, simply, too late.
If we look at the evidence from cognitive science around working memory and long-term memory (as explained so brilliantly in Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School) it’s clear that, in order for something to be learned, it requires multiple exposures and thought, in order to become embedded in long-term memory.
It is only when this transfer has happened that pupils can begin to use it effectively to reason and analyse material in an exam. “To think is a transitive verb,” Willingham writes. “You need something to think about.”
An overwhelming load
Trying to pour knowledge in at the end of school is too much too late. It’s not hard to see how the cognitive overload could be overwhelming.
Every year, teachers hear pupils claiming that they haven’t been taught something or that they simply aren’t prepared.
The urge to do as much as humanly possible kicks in. We start to feel guilty, frustrated and worried about results, both for the pupils we have spent years of our lives supporting and also for ourselves.
And so the revision session temptation kicks in. Perhaps even worse are the schools where revision sessions are imposed on teachers. But what is the impact? What is the cost?
It is true that schools exist in different contexts. For some, the pressure to improve results and to close the gap for pupils is overwhelming.
Yet with the increasing concerns over mental health, again for both students and staff, these sessions clearly represent unnecessary pressure.
In this exam season alone, I have heard of tutor-time lectures, sessions at lunchtime and after-school sessions, whole days throughout the holidays, Saturday morning sessions – I even heard of some on a Sunday.
Teachers and students are therefore giving up their valuable rest and recuperation to keep slogging away on the treadmill of exam pressure.
The truth is that the pupils who attend are often the ones who would revise independently anyway; they come along because it is offered and don’t want to miss out.
The ones who we may desperately want to attend may not see the value as they are already lacking motivation or self-belief.
Many are unable to attend due to family or caring commitments. And so the inequality continues and the gap widens anyway.
What we need to do is plan for better study over time: build our curriculum, lessons, homework tasks and expectations around strategies that work for long-term memory.
We could start GCSE courses with an assembly outlining this to pupils. We could tell them that they will not be offered revision sessions but that you will support them all the way along.
We could offer intervention and support earlier, as and when it is required. We could help to develop intrinsic motivation and a study ethic through retrieval activities and deliberate practice.
We could build real foundations and remove the plastic straws.
Joanne Tiplady is an English teacher, research lead and literacy coordinator at Beverley High School in East Yorkshire