Revisit revising to make the lesson last

2nd August 2013 at 01:00
When it comes to looking back, the old ways aren't the best. After all, there is not much long-term benefit from short-term cramming, as Clare Jarmy reports

Now that the exam period is over for another year and we are in the first flush of the summer holidays, we can look back half-nostalgically at the freezer-bags full of stationery, abandoned index cards outside sports halls, furrowed brows and light-bulb moments. Yet not every part of the assessment process gains a happier hue in reminiscence: when it comes to recalling revision, teachers can feel stubbornly conflicted.

In many ways, the time spent assisting revision is satisfying: we feel things are coming together and students are working independently; there are clear goals to aim for; there is a focused productivity in the air.

But the revision period brings with it the uneasy feeling that education should not be about how much students can remember. Can atomic structure, the fabric of the universe, be boiled down to bullet points on an index card? Is speaking French the same as memorising 500 words of French? When we first darkened the doors of our training institutions, we were hardly aspiring to a life teaching children to remember facts.

One teacher with no such qualms was Charles Dickens' Mr Gradgrind: "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else."

In the chapter of Hard Times entitled "Murdering the innocents", Dickens exposes the limitations of this type of education that has at its core the memorising of facts. He equates it with a mind closed to imagination and beauty.

Does revision promote this closed mentality? It is useful to look at the activity through the prism of Bloom's Taxonomy of skills, which is for many of us the theory at the heart of explaining student development. Bloom's Taxonomy provides a hierarchy of cognitive complexity, from the simple task of remembering something up to skills of evaluation and synthesis. It can seem, after the high-level thinking demonstrated during the year, as though revision sends us right back to the bottom of the pyramid.

Having said that, Bloom's Taxonomy is not simply about a hierarchy but also a progression of skills. Remembering is a necessary step on the road to higher levels of thinking. If students cannot demonstrate that they know x, they can hardly evaluate x. It is easy to see revision as a process of memorising facts in a way of which Gradgrind would have been proud, but the fact that students are memorising oral presentations and writing index cards about atomic structure does not imply that this is the only skill that is required in an exam. Yet this question remains: what is good revision, and how do we enable it to happen?

The acid test for a revision process must be that at the end of it, the student is both better equipped for an exam and a better practitioner of the subject. If revision leads to exam success but leaves students unable to complete higher-level tasks, then it has allowed them to do an impression of someone who understands your subject rather than really getting to grips with it.

Jerome Bruner in his book The Process of Education advocated a series of learning stages that allows students to absorb subjects in ever-increasing depth. He rejected the idea that children should be required to memorise lots of facts, and supported the ideal of learning through enquiry. He envisaged learning as a progression that begins with intuitive ideas and builds gradually through a process of constant revisiting. Hence, we do not progress on and on in a linear way but revisit and build, like a spiral. By revisiting, we shore up the foundations of knowledge, and then we can add a layer of depth at each stage.

Let's say you are introducing the idea of waves in physics. Bruner would say that teachers need to find an intuitive way into the subject - the obvious example is waves in the sea. From this, students are given a structure for understanding waves - perhaps they draw a diagram of a rolling wave. Then they are ready to put it into practice, perhaps using a Slinky and observing the wave patterns that can be made. The Slinky then provides the intuition for the next layer of learning - that there are different kinds of wave. This is then structured: students learn about transverse and longitudinal waves. Next they can apply this to the original example of the sea. This process of intuition, structuring and reviewing continues over many layers of learning, each one at a higher level but still reinforcing the one before.

This should be applied to revision. The idea of revision as "looking again" calls to mind an image of students staring at index cards and learning by rote - the kind of low-level task that sits at the bottom of Bloom's Taxonomy. I suggest a change of nomenclature: "revising" can go and "revisiting" can stay.

Revisiting material deepens understanding while reinforcing knowledge. It allows students to achieve the basic skills of remembering while progressing up the learning hierarchy. It also means that the objective of learning is ever-increasing depth rather than retention of factual knowledge. Best of all, revisiting passes the acid test - it creates students who are better equipped for an exam as well as better practitioners in the subject.

Revisiting is not a revolutionary step for us to take as teachers. It is something we do naturally - when starting a new topic, for example, we often refer to knowledge and skills that students already have. The effectiveness of revisiting lies in the emphasis we give it. It is tempting in revision to boil material down to its simplest state, but instead we must go back and build further.

One way of doing this is to use an "exponential mind map" - a mind map that keeps growing. Using A3 paper, the student writes everything they can remember about a topic as a small mind map in the centre of the page. Then, in a different colour, they write two new things from their notes or books for every one fact they remembered. Next, they change colours again and explain the concepts on the map. With another colour, they draw connections between the different aspects of the topic. Then (especially if they are older students) they add in relevant chapter and page numbers from books as a prompt for more research. When this research is complete, they take their final colour and squeeze in anything else they have learned that could add to the mind map. They could even photocopy paragraphs and stick them to the edge in the relevant place. At the end of this process, they will have a brilliant, in-depth resource that can be displayed on the wall and revisited over and over.

Of course, all this is said within the context of a wider debate about the purpose of education, and whether it lies in preparing for exams or in the inherent value of the subject and the skills it brings. As I have shown, if we substitute revisiting for revision, we can have both.

Clare Jarmy is head of philosophy and religious studies at Bedales School in Hampshire. She is the author of Arguments for God

IN SHORT

- Revision can be a contentious area for teachers who believe it is necessary to learn facts but fear that a central role of education - to promote understanding - could be lost in the process.

- What can bridge the gap between understanding and remembering is "spiral learning" - a process of revisiting topics in increasing depth, thereby helping the child to recall the basic facts but ensuring that they can also apply them in a wider context.

- To put this into practice, you could get the students to develop a mind map whereby they note their core knowledge and then gradually build on those points until they have an in-depth reference tool.

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