Rethinking revision: it’s more than just the facts

13th March 2017 at 16:15
Revision is more than facts
Revision shouldn't simply be about memorising lots of facts – there's not much long-term benefit from short-term cramming. Clare Jarmy shows how it's possible to get exam success while still encouraging wider understanding

With the exam period looming, many teachers can feel stubbornly conflicted about revisiting revision.

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?

Does revision promote this closed mentality?

Let's look at revision 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 isn't 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 can't demonstrate that they know x, they can hardly evaluate x.

It's easy to see revision as a process of memorising facts, 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.

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's allowed them to do an impression of someone who understands your subject rather than really getting to grips with it.

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

Jerome Bruner, in his book The Process of Education, supported the ideal of learning through enquiry and envisaged learning as a progression that begins with intuitive ideas and builds gradually through a process of constant revisiting. We don't 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.

Revision should be about layered learning

This process of intuition, structuring and reviewing, that continues over many layers of learning, each one at a higher level but still reinforcing the one before, 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 revolutionary, it's 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's tempting in revision to boil material down to its simplest state but instead we must go back and build further.

Expanding your mind map

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've shown, if we substitute revisiting for revision, we can have both.

This is an edited version of an article by Clare Jarmy, head of philosophy and religious studies at Bedales School in Hampshire, England

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