We often end up approaching revision activities as an opportunity to show our students and colleagues that we are going the extra mile. Easter booster classes, after-school intervention sessions, teacher-produced model answers; these are all things which can be highly effective but are also the sort of labour-intensive strategies that send out the message that education is brought to students like a meal at a restaurant, ready to be consumed.
I am not suggesting that we teachers don't have a huge responsibility towards our students and their results, but it's vital that we encourage our students (and schools) to view revision as something students need to do for their own benefit and tailor it to their own needs.
The revision activities we devise should have this at their core – we are showing our students exactly what they need to do to ensure their success, not doing it for them.
Here are a few tried-and-tested revision techniques you can try to put your students in the driving seat.
Student-centric revision lessons
Quite naturally, lessons can sometimes slip into a chalk-and-talk dynamic in the run up to exams. The students are at their most compliant as the fear of exams sets in, and teachers are perhaps at their most didactic as they want to negate any risk of not reaching their value added pupil progress targets.
However, it’s vital to give them a chance to show what they know and, just as importantly, what they don’t know.
Depending on the school you are at, behavioural issues can be a stifling barrier to this, but wherever possible it’s important to get students delivering presentations, producing displays and contributing to online shared resources which will benefit their classmates. It’s not simply about decreasing teacher workload: it’s about fostering a culture where the students feel like the key stakeholders of their own success.
Student-created revision books
If you've ever been a head of department, the chances are you've been asked to create a revision booklet at some point: something the students can take away and use to revise from which puts all the information they need for the course into one handy, staple-bound little guide. You have, in short, been asked to write your own textbook.
Few of us have the time to do this on top of a full teaching load, so a far more conducive approach is crowd-sourcing it from students.
The most common bit of push-back on this technique is the issue of quality control. When we get students to create resources, there are so many things which could go wrong out of laziness or simple misunderstanding; we are the paid experts, after all.
For this reason, it's really important to give a rigid, non-negotiable checklist of things which a contribution to a class revision guide needs to include, such as images, diagrams, sub-headings and a bullet-pointed summary at the end.
It's also important to provide your own contribution first, so that students are aware of what you are expecting.
Blank revision books
If the suggestion above seems a little too risky for you, here is a technique which I find incredibly effective with exam classes: the concept is simple enough – make the students an entire textbook for everything they need to know for the exam. But leave out all of the writing except the headings and the sub-headings.
Leave half an empty box taking up half a page with simply the words ‘Feminist criticism of Wuthering Heights’, or ‘Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism’. Let the students fill these spaces with everything they know on these topics.
If you plan these books shrewdly then they will very quickly and easily illustrate to you and the students themselves where the specific gaps in their subject-knowledge are.
This recently proved particularly useful with a Year 13 English language class who impressively filled almost every box I’d provided for them apart from ‘Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development’, which immediately told me that the next lesson needed a fresh look at that.
The art of notes
By the time students get to the age of 16, I think they are ready to make one of the most important decisions a young person has to face; their preference of note-taking style.
As long as students are taking effective, detailed notes then I like to stay as non-prescriptive as possible with this. I think it’s important however to teach them a few of the different schools of thought as to how to take effective notes.
My personal preference is the Cornell Style of note-taking, because it has a clear structure and forces you to revisit your notes twice before they are officially ‘finished’.
It makes looking through exercise books and folders far more varied and it means that I can get a handle on what aspects of my lessons are most sticking out as ‘noteworthy’ to my students.
Put it online
Where possible, put your resources somewhere students can get them at home. I've had good experiences with Google Classroom, Edmodo, Weebly and many other bits of popular EduTech.
Similarly, good old-fashioned email can do the trick. I am often emailing my classes things I find online which serve as good wider reading or contemporary development of class themes. It also opens up a good channel of communication for shyer students to reach out and tell you if they don’t understand something about the subject.
A more effective way of setting revision as a homework task for students is to give this instruction more structure by providing specific tasks.
Something which can be done as a department is to create a ‘Task Menu’ for students to pick and choose from on their homework days. This includes ‘make a timeline of the events in Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘list the number of references to stars over the course of the play, along with page numbers’. The key is to have a wide variety of task-types, including written tasks, research tasks, creative tasks and a couple of fun ones that involve watching relevant videos, etc.
So in conclusion…
Exam season is about as stressful as it gets for a teacher. You are sending off coursework samples, battling piles of marking and dealing with students at their neediest and most ready to complain if they don’t think you are bursting enough blood-vessels on their behalf.
This will probably never change, nor will the fear that you will be publicly shamed if the stars haven’t aligned perfectly for your teaching sets on results day.
What we can do however, is remind students of the fact that their exams are indeed theirs and, if they want to feel any sense of pride in them, they need to be contributing at least as much as we are.
Phil Brown is a writer and English teacher from South London
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