How to get students to revise properly: a guide 

We know the best ways for students to revise – but getting them to use those methods is another matter, says Mark Enser

Mark Enser

What is the best way to revise for GCSE and A level?

In his article "GCSE revision 2021: What's the best way to revise?" Jon Severs considered the research from Professor John Dunlosky that argues students learn best from "successive relearning". 

This involves students doing retrieval practice, to draw the previous learned material from their long-term memories, and making sure this practice is distributed so that it is returned to at regular intervals and not crammed just before the exam. 

This is excellent advice. The problem is getting our students to follow it. 

GCSE revision: what works best?

Using retrieval practice is uncomfortable. It really reveals what you do and don’t know and leaves you nowhere to hide. 

The same goes for other effective strategies such as self-explaining and deliberate practice. It is far more comforting to use strategies that work far less well, such as rereading your notes, copying these notes from place to place (perhaps in the form of a colourful mindmap) or answering questions with access to your notes to support you. 

These activities don’t tax your memory – the information is right there in front of you. They don’t involve thinking hard and, for this reason, they don’t work. 

False hope at GCSE

However, you do get a nice glow from the feeling of recognition as you look at your notes. “I remember this!” you can think, but only with the prompt of the material to refer to. 

This gives us teachers a problem. We know what strategies are most likely to work for students in terms of their revision, but these are the strategies they are least likely to engage in. 

How do we solve this problem?

Show them the science

Firstly, I have found it important to share the science of learning with your classes. This doesn’t take long, but it is powerful. 

I show them the research that reveals the importance of retrieval as a revision tool, such as this by Karpicke and Grimaldi (2012), and discuss the graph showing the difference in test outcomes from retrieval over re-study. 

I also discuss Dunlosky’s work and talk about misconceptions over revision, especially claims like “everyone has to find what works for them”, and we replace that with an idea of the basic principles that this still has to abide by. 

They may need to find what works for them, but this needs to still involve retrieving information from memory, spacing it over time and having a calm and focused learning environment. 

Show them how

Students respond well to being given this glimpse inside the learning process but they still want concrete examples of how to revise. 

So we give them these. I have started being much more explicit about teaching generative learning strategies in class, such as effective mind mapping and self-explanation, and explaining how this could also be used by them at home for revision. 

As a school, we have started putting together videos in which we demonstrate effective revision strategies.  

This gets us a long way, especially with those students who are already motivated to do well, but there are always those who are resistant and need extra encouragement to revise effectively. 

Get parents involved

One way we try to help them is by involving parents. The effective revision videos are available to them, so that they know what we are asking their children to do. We also run sessions on effective revision for parents to attend with their children. This way we hope to ensure that we are all on the same page with the advice and support we are offering. 

Finally, I try to leave as little as possible to chance. 

Rather than leaving students to just "revise", I set very specific revision tasks, and do this all the way from Year 7. 

Read more on GCSEs and A levels:

Final decision: GCSE and A level 2021 exams scrapped in Wales

GCSEs 2021: Scrap next summer’s exams, says regulator

GCSEs: Scrap exams or risk a fiasco, North warns DfE

We are clear that we don’t just want students to do the work, we want them to learn it as they experience the curriculum. 

Students might be given a homework task to create and use flashcards on a previous topic, or to create a mind map on a place they studied and to do it following several principles that make it more effective. This means that revision becomes something embedded into the curriculum, and that they learn the strategies that will help them, and it isn’t just left until the end of the course with hurried revision booklets or calls for after-school sessions. These things become redundant, they know how to revise for themselves because we have taught them to do so. 

As teachers, knowing what makes effective revision strategies is an important first step. However, if we don’t follow it up by teaching them to our students and then ensuring that they are followed, they will have very little impact. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. His latest book, Generative Learning in Action, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark 


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