Have you got revision all wrong?

Experts in all fields, from music to sport, spend less time practising their craft than you might think. Alex Quigley says cramming better, not for longer, is the secret

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Teachers are giving inspirational speeches, the assembly hall echoes with constant tortoise-and-hare analogies, and parents are suddenly interested in how much book time their children are putting in: it must be revision season.

We all know that most students will revise grudgingly – and we know that they will invariably revise badly. That is as certain as the changing seasons. So as teachers we make every effort we can to put on a plethora of revision classes to ensure students revise, and that they do so properly.

But what exactly is “quality” revision and, in our efforts to ensure students revise well, are we in danger of perpetuating the myth that the more you revise, the better result you will achieve?

That teens do not revise well is pretty conclusive. Research by Bjork, Dunlosky and Kornell in 2012 demonstrated that students don’t like to use the most effective revision approaches such as self-testing (they don’t think it aids their learning), or using flashcards and quizzing. Not only that, our students routinely use less-effective revision methods, such as re-reading their class books and highlighting their notes.

They then tend to apply these ineffective techniques over long periods, clocking up the hours in the belief that time spent means grades earned, but a lot of this time is wasted.

So how do we help students revise better and how do we help them understand that more is not always beneficial?

Deliberate practice

For some answers, we should turn to the experts for how to help our novices revise best. Or rather, we should turn to the expert about expertise: Anders Ericsson.

The professor of psychology at Florida State University has studied expertise for decades, and his research can tell us the best ways that students should revise and for how long.

First we should look at what constitutes effective revision. What we need to aim for, says Ericsson, is “deliberate practice”.

Are we in danger of perpetuating the myth that the more you revise, the better you will achieve?

He defines this as work, not performance – so concentrating on a specific element and repeatedly practising that element under guidance, rather than concentrating on improving an end result. So rather than improving your football skills by playing as many matches as possible with your mates, you should be coached to identify your weak areas (for example, a poor left-footed pass), and on how to improve that (the creation of repeated drills to improve your left foot).

If we transfer this to revision, then we need to be much more specific about how we set – and how teenagers set their own – revision.

Rather than “revise physics”, we need to target a specific area of the subject, such as waves. We should get students to construct a mind map of their prior knowledge of the topic and test themselves on that knowledge, generating feedback as to where the weak areas are, so they can be targeted.

The role of the teacher in this process cannot be underestimated. Teenagers won’t know to do this unless you explicitly tell them; they won’t always be adept at spotting their weaknesses or devising ways to tackle those weaknesses. As such, the role of the teacher – and school time given over to revision – is crucial. Ericsson’s notion of deliberate practice recommends specific coaching and this is what we should do.

Quality revision is only half the battle – we still need to work out how much revision students should be doing and when they should be doing it.

Under the pressure of looming exams, there is an understandable urge to work harder and harder. It seems to make sense to us that the more we revise, the more knowledge we will cram into our brains and the better we will perform in an exam. But it turns out that this is wrong. Ericsson’s research on expert performance found that experts in all fields, from music to sport and academia, spent similar amounts of time on deliberate practice, but it proved to be fewer hours than almost everybody assumed.


Though experts began their practice at an early age and maintained high levels of daily practice, they limited it to only between two and four hours a day. The key to effective revision is not hours of cramming in the final few months, but regular, concentrated, shorter periods.

This works against how most schools operate. After-school revision sessions are particularly problematic. Following a hard-thinking five hours at school, the teenage brain is simply no longer ready for peak performance, never mind the teachers teetering near the edge of exhaustion. While these sessions may work logistically, they rarely do practically.

So here’s where we rip up the traditional model of guided revision in lesson time, followed by guided revision after school and revision tasks to be completed in spare time. It’s where we end the preoccupation with hours spent revising, and focus more on how and when students are revising.

Routine is important. It was the Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, who said, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules”. Trollope was a man of his word. He wrote nearly 50 novels (of Victorian girth), having penned 5,000 words before 9am pretty much every day of his writing life.

We should target regular, deliberate practice in schools and it makes sense for that daily dose of revision to be in registration time, which lasts for about 15 or 20 minutes in most schools.

We can supplement this with in-lesson revision time and specific guidance on out-of-school revision. Good planning will ensure maximum use of these sessions.

'Spacing' out study

Thanks to more than a century of studying the human brain, and our flawed memory, we know that we need a little forgetting to learn. Cognitive scientists call it “spacing”. We also know that we should aim for “interleaving”. This fancy term describes the practice of mixing up revision topics, so that the brain is forced to remember and sort the learned material. Our students are prone to the easy approach of blocking – spending all day on one subject or topic.

Happily, the school day is naturally interleaved, but teacher-led revision sessions, or extra revision days, are prone to focusing in on one subject (often English or maths, given the undue pressure on the core subjects and how they affect school success). We need to ensure that we train students to interleave and space out their revision, by modelling interleaving and spacing with how we set up revision in schools.

By focusing on quality, we may see a welcome reduction in quantity

This takes a great deal of co-ordination across subjects and some real leadership in the school. But if we model how it should work in school hours, students will transfer this to their personal revision. Admittedly, this could be quite different to how revision is usually carried out in your school, but the research suggests that the effort of changing your approach would be worth it.

Obviously, all the above is not a foolproof method of ensuring excellent revision, but it is a blueprint for what we currently know works best. We don’t need students to be spending every waking hour revising – we just need them to be revising better for shorter periods. By focusing on quality, we may see a welcome reduction in quantity – easing the stress of students and teachers alike – and strike the right balance for our pupils to achieve exam success.

Alex Quigley is director of research at Huntington School in York. He tweets @HuntingEnglish

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