Teach children to use the Force for exam success

18th March 2016 at 00:00
How the tactics of Star Wars’ Jedi knights can bring the best out of revision sessions

I’m a Star Wars fan. I admit it. But considering the latest Star Wars film became the highest grossing film of all time, I am going to assume I am far from the only one. And, therefore, I feel comfortable using Han Solo and friends to frame what I hope will be a successful mission into the complicated world of getting students to revise. Yes, I am going to teach you how to use the Force.

By the Force, I mean mind tricks. And these ploys are much needed. Although you may find my lack of faith disturbing, I suspect that too many students are not doing the quantity and quality of revision that we are looking for.

Students want to follow the quick and easy path of the dark side, losing hours traversing the forbidden planets of Facebook, Snapchat and XBox Live. We must look to help unpick these bad habits, while helping them to develop the patience and self-control of a true Jedi, so that they may wield their revision arsenal with success.

Do you still doubt whether you can convince your reluctant students to revise harder and smarter when it comes to the often humdrum act of revision?

While I don’t know the odds (as Han Solo would say, never tell me the odds), I’d say if you use these tips, you’ll be great, kid – just don’t get cocky.

Jedi mind trick 1

‘Revision is the “in” thing’

We know that the urge to revise lacks the gravitational pull of having fun with your friends or watching cat videos on YouTube. The teenage brain naturally struggles with planning and students exhibit a strong desire to fit in with their peers – revising hard is not usually considered the best way to fit in and flourish with friends.

But what if we found a way of using that desire to fit in to get these students revising? Our first revision mind trick is to positively frame revision as the “done” thing in the class.

Take this familiar scenario: despite your best attempts, a third of your group fail to do their revision homework task. Annoyed and frustrated, you issue a detention and demand better next time. Next time comes along and…well, you know the story.

Now, we can reverse this gloom-ridden scenario. Rather than harden the anti-revision attitude, where students feel safe in their group identity as being anti-academic, we can speak with relentless positivity about how much students are revising. Instead of spending all our time railing at those who have failed to revise, we should celebrate individuals who exhibit the revision behaviours we desire, making every student thinks this is the norm.

As every teacher knows instinctively, “Fear is the path to the dark side.” What our students want and need is to feel like they belong.

Jedi mind trick 2

‘You will achieve’

Our second revision mind trick involves that now familiar buzz phrase: cultivating a growth mindset in our students. As a prosthetic little green philosopher once said: “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

It is too easy for our students to give up and believe that they can’t revise or that they aren’t ‘naturally’ academic – as Yoda would have said, “That is why you fail.” The now well-known idea of growth mindset, based on Carol Dweck’s research, can surely help here.

The self-control and application required of revision sessions is aided by the belief that failure, difficulty and struggle, provide what Dweck describes as “opportunities for learning”. We need to focus on failure and celebrate it as an opportunity to get better, alongside communicating the message that exam success is within students’ control.

Jedi mind trick 3

‘This is the route to that job you have always wanted’

Of course, our students need to also believe that their long-term goals are personally attainable too. Telling them stories of the hard-won success of students a long, long time ago can prove a lasting revision mind trick.

Yet while students are no doubt influenced and motivated by revision success stories, a great exam grade is just an outcome and it doesn’t feel tangible to students. Their prospective future career is still in a galaxy far, far away to them. Our students need to understand how these seemingly interminable revision sessions relate to their future goals – how bullseying womp rats in their T-16 now can help them take down an empire later. Students are more motivated when they understand how their physics GCSE could lead to an engineering career, which could in turn see them help people, making lives healthier, safer and richer. Put simply, the third revision mind trick is that our students need to be taught the value of how their revision success can connect them to an inspiring future goal.

Jedi mind trick 4

‘You do have a choice’

Drivers to boost the motivation of students to revise harder are everywhere if we seek them out. Our fourth revision mind trick is a simple and common strategy: give them a choice. It is amazing how much more motivated students can become when revising when given a few simple choices. It could be allowing them to determine their revision strategy of choice, or where and when they revise. A little autonomy can go a long way when trying to motivate a determinedly independent teen.

Thinking about the force of motivation is really important when it comes to encouraging students to revise more and better. The ARCS model of motivation, by John Keller, is helpful here. It stands for the following:


Grabbing their attention when guiding them to revision, using strategies like humour, interesting examples and active participation, really does matter a great deal.


Students need to find a bigger purpose for their revision – something to drag them through. Making the topics and the subject relevant to their future lives in a concrete way is helpful.


Doing harder revision is difficult work, so it takes confidence. If they can see they are making progress in small steps, their growing competence will fuel their confidence, which will in turn drive them to revise more.


This is a simple idea, but our students need to feel satisfied by their revision, so they can grow to enjoy a challenge and appreciate when they see the rewards come their way.

Jedi mind trick 5

‘Highlighters are not the answer’

Some revision myths reach the forest moon of Endor before teachers can turn the key in the ignition of the Millennium Falcon. The Force’s dark side dwells in these myths. Surprisingly, the dark side is daubed in highlighter pens.

Let me make it clear: the highlighter pen is not the revision tool you are looking for. Research on the science of memory and revision (see feature, page 24) has shown that some revision strategies prove flimsier than a 3PO protocol droid stuck in a Tatooine desert.

According to Professor John Dunlovsky, of Kent State University, we should guide our students to avoid flawed revision strategies, such as simply rereading their notes, with a smattering of highlighter pen; underlining key words; or relying on mnemonics.

Jedi mind trick 6

‘Testing is both fun and useful’

Get students to test themselves. It takes some convincing to get them to revise without their notes, or the awkward experience of trying and failing at a tricky quiz. It is so much easier for our young padawans to play their favourite music and happily read their notes with a bit of colouring in, in blissful ignorance that it won’t likely stick, than to grapple with a blank page. But persuade them, you must.

Jedi mind trick 7

‘You want to turn that music off and enjoy silence’

Other revision myths need razing from our students minds, like nameless stormtroopers being smashed by a fearless Jedi. For example, the seductive belief in multi-tasking? IT’S A TRAP. School them like Obi-wan with the knowledge that multi-tasking is a myth and the reality is that they are task switching – an ineffective way to learn and remember. Our seventh revision mind trick, then, will be to convince our students of the following: switch off your music, put away your phone and focus. Attractive, it is not; effective it will be.

Jedi mind trick 8

‘Revision is easy!’

Students are likely to need a lot of convincing to change and improve their revision habits. Like young Skywalker, they must unlearn what they have learned. Our students can prove a stubborn lot (you saw what happened to Anakin and Kylo Ren, right?), and your students will resist any particular mind tricks that forces them to think harder and even feel a little uncomfortable at times.

So here, is our eighth and final revision mind trick: make revision attractive by making them believe that they can do less revision, but still have greater exam success.

As teachers, we can get stuck in the groove of setting more and more revision, asking them to work harder and harder. As you may have noticed, this isn’t always a successful strategy with even our best would-be-Jedi Knights. Much to learn, they still have.

We need to convince them that if they use the most effective revision strategies (self-testing, quizzing, using flashcards, undertaking regular past exam questions) and they switch off their technological devices to better focus, they could indeed do less, but it would still likely have more impact on their examination results – it is more powerful than they could have possibly imagined.

Alex Quigley is director of research at Huntington School in York. His book, The Confident Teacher, is out in May He tweets @HuntingEnglish

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