It’s a nail-biting moment when your class enters the exam hall, poised and ready to either harness that wisdom to gracefully fly across the finish line, or to stumble, spilling that slippery subject knowledge and skidding in it so catastrophically that they crash into the side of a barn and catch fire, a bit like retaking GCSE exams.
You’ve got to relinquish control. But how? Well, rather than waking up in a cold sweat every night from April to August, take some preventative measures and prepare your students fully. Revision is not an intuitive process; you can’t simply trust that students will do it effectively. Just as you taught all that slippery subject knowledge, you can also teach the grippy, robust skills of revision to avoid that horrifying barn-fire.
Read it and weep
Left to their own devices, many students would sit and read their notes over and over until their eyes glaze over and their brain becomes semi-comatose. This is not helpful. They won’t learn much, and certainly won’t remember much this way, unless you can find some useful revision games for the classroom.
Our brains need to be actively doing something for information to be more memorable, so each of the following revision strategies involves a different way of waking up the brain to use study notes in a more active way, much like you would with a Higher National Certificate.
The daily grind
You can integrate classroom revision games and tasks into your long-term plans, setting homework to produce posters or create videos summarising topics. This pay-as-you-go approach breaks the whole concept of revision up into something less daunting, and has the benefit of being a constant reminder that yes, you will be tested on this stuff so please pay attention.
With detailed or hard-to-grasp areas, work at building up short-term memories to fit them more securely into the long-term memory. Give students a ten-question quiz the day they learn the content; then the same short quiz the following day; then a week later; then a month later.
This should cement the information in their long-term memories, as well as drive them slightly mad (which might be fun) and will probably settle in a student's mind, much like all the things they can get with a student TOTUM card.
Regularly issue practice questions which emulate the kind of question students will face in the exam. Get them used to using timers so that their speed and efficiency improves over time. Half the battle in an exam is not just knowing the info, but having the time and skills to actually demonstrate that they know it.
A picture paints a thousand words
Visual aids are extremely effective for exam revision. Make it part of your classroom practice so that students are in the habit of exploiting art for revision. If it’s not something they’re used to, it could be slow and clunky to try to introduce visual aids during exam season. They’ll have other things on their mind and it might just seem like an extra challenge to get their heads around. So make it a regular feature of your lessons. Here are a few suggestions for making a page of written notes more visual, and therefore more memorable:
- Use colours to block off sections of text, or highlight key words
- Set out information in charts to make it clear to understand and straightforward to remember
- Use mind maps and spider diagrams to represent relationships between detailed ideas
- Don’t use a word if you can use a picture instead. This is especially helpful where vague or intangible details like names, dates and conceptual keywords are concerned. Use associations to make abstract ideas more concrete and visual. For example, a Philosophy student might need to remember that John Locke was an Enlightenment thinker who was influenced by Francis Bacon and suggested that the mind is a tabula rasa. She might therefore draw a man with a padlock (Locke) around his neck, with a lightbulb above his head like an idea (Enlightenment), a frying pan full of streaky Bacon in one hand, and a blank piece of paper in the other (tabula rasa).
One of the best ways to figure out if you really understand something is to try and explain it to someone else. How many times have you read a news story or watched a documentary, and only really grasped the intricacies of the ideas once you attempt to recount them to someone else? Your students can be paired up to re-teach ideas to each other as plenaries in lessons, and they can try to teach parents or siblings at home during revision periods.
Shy students might prefer to close their exercise books and talk into a recording app for a minute or two to summarise each mini-topic that they’ve revised. That approach also has the benefit of creating little revision podcasts that they can listen to again before the exam.
A trip down memory lane
Traditionally referred to as ‘loci’, but it doesn’t quite roll of the tongue as well as other classroom revision activities, but thanks to BBC’s Sherlock, now quite often known as a ‘memory palace’, this memory technique is thousands of years old and helps with everything from A-Levels all the way through to a general bachelor's degree.
Humans have an instinctive ability to remember locations, most likely a skill that has emerged through evolution (if early humans were prone to forgetting where the good fruit was growing, or which lake had the deadliest crocodiles in, then their genes wouldn’t have got the chance to be carried forward…)
Using this innate skill, memory champions (yes, people actually compete!) map information onto mental locations to hook it more strongly into their brains. For example, a Politics student might visualise their walk home to help recall British Prime Ministers in chronological order. Leaving the school driveway, they might picture a Thatcher working on a roof. Passing the bus stop, there could be a marching army Major, and then a hag dancing by their front door (that’ll be the Blair Witch). If they regularly take a mental walk through these places, with the information placed carefully en-route, it should be easy to recall in the exam.
Going for a song
You still remember all your nursery rhymes, don’t you? One of the best (and let’s face it, annoying) revision activities for the classroom. There’s incredible power to repetition, rhythm and rhyme. If you’re musical, or your students are, why not use this to your advantage? In fact, you don’t need to be the next Rihanna; I still remember my old English teacher banging her hand on the table with each syllable of her ‘sick of run-on sentences’ chant (two-sen-ten-ces-no-join-ing-word-must-have-a-full-stop-or-a-se-mi-co-lon). That’s hardly Wordsworth, but I can still hear it, 20 years later.
Everyone knows ‘Never Eat Shredded Wheat’, the mantra of the gluten-free orienteers. But what’s stopping you coming up with some new Mnemonics for your own subject? Maybe Biology students revising forms of RNA can ride the TRAM (Transfer, Ribosomal and Messenger). Latin students could remember suffixes to mark person by getting LOST (Latin 1st person: -O, 2nd: -S, Third: -T).
Perhaps you could even benefit from a mnemonic of your own: RTRAAYINYITHOHASLSS (Remember To Retrain As A Yoga Instructor Next Year In The Hope Of Having A Slightly Less Stressful Summer). Granted, it’s not very catchy, which is possibly why you’re still having to read this guide to teaching revision strategies. Maybe next year, eh?
Just do it
Did your primary school teacher subject you to years of spellings by the ‘look-cover-write-check’ method? Wow, it’s boring, but it works. Find ways to recreate this method of revision for your students, following the pattern of learning, independent attempt, and then checking for success.
Maybe you could have a set of questions ready, a missing word ‘cloze’ activity, a hangman game for a keyword, 20 questions game for a concept, or they have to talk for 60 seconds on a topic they’ve just revised. They won’t be begging for more, but it’ll be more entertaining than look-cover-write-check and it’ll pack the same punch.
Sweet smell of success
When simply reading is unavoidable (such as re-reading set texts for English Literature or pouring over books for studying Law at university), information can be recalled more easily when it’s linked to a smell. Studies have shown that exposure to a particular scent - maybe orange oil for Othello, lavender for Wuthering Heights - is strongly tied to memory recall. Just in the same way that the smell of Lynx Africa might instantly transport you back to your school discos, students can wear or burn oils whilst they read, and then dab that oil onto their cuffs for the exam.
There’s no guarantee of a good night’s sleep between April and August, for either you or your students, but if you take the time to arm them with these powerful revision techniques, then they’re much more likely to succeed than self-combust. And that’s a lot less messy for everyone concerned.