ROTE LEARNING has generally gone out of fashion, but research at one secondary school has shown that deliberate repetition of hard facts is the key to high exam results.
Teachers at Monkseaton community high in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, say there are neurological processes behind the phenomenon of committing facts, names and numbers to memory. Individual nerve cells in the brain know which memories to preserve and which ones to let fade. So, for example, a person will remember their hotel room number only for the duration of their stay.
But when an event is important, or repeated often enough, synapses in the brain are stimulated, effectively tattooing these memories so that they will not be lost.
This stimulus cannot be repeated indefinitely. For memories to stick, synaptic stimulus should be followed by 10-minute intervals of brain inactivity, ensuring the synapses are not over-stimulated.
The Monkseaton teachers realised that this could provide the key to effective exam revision.
Angela Bradley, a science teacher, devised a special one-hour GCSE revision session, condensing an entire unit, or half a year's work, into a single, eight-minute PowerPoint presentation. This was followed by a 10-minute game of Simon Says. The presentation was then repeated, with strategic words removed. Pupils were asked to help fill in the blanks. After another 10-minute gap, the presentation was again repeated, and then pupils were asked questions linked to the information originally presented.
"It's based on the same principle as rote learning," said Miss Bradley. "We always knew that repeating something makes it sink in. But now we know why.
The 10-minute gap makes the difference. Having a break, then firing the synapses again after 10 minutes is most effective. It's making the most of the time that we have."
Neurologists suggested the 10-minute gaps would be most effective if filled with physical activity. But Miss Bradley has found that Chinese whispers work well too.
Hypothesising that any activity, as long it involved a change, would have the desired effect, she began to fill the time between biology fact repetition with chemistry teaching. "It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you vary activities," she said. "This way, we fit more in."
She ran an intensive revision session shortly before GCSE module resits in March. Pupils had not covered the exam topics in class since November, when the exams were held. "Normally, resit results won't be as good," said Miss Bradley. "But we saw a significant rise. The average results were higher in the second exam than in the first.
"Now pupils ask for these lessons. They really think it helps them. So they must feel that a lot has gone into their heads. They come out knowing stuff they didn't before. That repetition really helped."
Stephen Purvis, 15, believes he has benefited. "Usually revision just feels boring and dull and slow. I read something and it goes straight back out,"
he said. "But I remembered these lessons, and could answer questions.
"I think I'll revise with 10-minute gaps when I'm at home. I suppose if I have to do revision, it will make it a bit more fun."
'Pupils wouldn't be able to cope with this lesson every day'
Angela Bradley was slightly shaken by the discovery that an entire term's work could be summarised in eight minutes.
The science teacher at Monkseaton community high in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, has condensed an entire Year 11 unit about the heart, among other topics, into a single, eight-minute PowerPoint presentation.
"You get rid of any blurb," she said. "Just include the key words you want to stick in the brain, the content you want pupils to memorise, content you think will be in the exam. Then a topic can be delivered in eight minutes."
Repeating these eight-minute sessions, with 10 minutes of a different activity between repetitions is, she claims, a highly effective tool for exam revision.
"It's just bursts of learning," said Miss Bradley. "It isn't boring and it doesn't last for ages.
"Pupils say they learn more that way in three-quarters of an hour than they do during the whole year.
"Why divide lessons into hours? The only answer can be that it's easier to divide the day into chunks of one hour than anything else."
However, Miss Bradley is not tempted to deliver the entire curriculum in a series of eight-minute bursts and then take the rest of the year off.
"It's quite intensive. I don't know if pupils would be able to cope with this every lesson, every day," she said.
"And this method doesn't lend itself to interaction. To understand something properly, there needs to be more explanation by the teacher. So it's best used for revision."
The eight-minute summaries are well-suited to science, which demands significant memorisation. Now humanities teachers at Monkseaton have begun experimenting with short-burst revision classes.