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Helping students to understand how to revise effectively: A reflection

Explaining the science behind teaching and revision, sharing several strategies, and demonstrating how to use these in context, SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow, Hamda Sheikh, writes how revision for students can be transformed.

Introduction

‘I just don’t know how to revise!’ is a complaint that I have heard constantly at my current school over the past two years. Initially I found it surprising. I had not thought much about the teaching of revision skills before at all. At my new school assessments happened when we reached the end of a topic. Students would sit an assessment on that topic. They would be told in advance; it was up to the teacher to provide a revision lesson or some revision homework. Students would then be signposted to resources and asked to make sure they had completed their flipped learning packs from which they should have already completed homework throughout the topic. Some students would create other revision materials, such as mind maps or flashcards, whilst others wouldn’t prepare at all.

This was a marked difference from my previous school which had a 5-week assessment cycle from year 7-13, where every five weeks there was a whole week set aside for assessments in each subject. During this assessment week year 7 to year 9 would sit a 55-minute assessment in class with year 10-13 students sitting their assessments under exam conditions in the schools’ halls. This assessment cycle had trained students in the process of revision before assessments. Students knew that they needed to revise content regularly in order to do well. For some that meant revising consistently over the gap between assessment weeks for others it meant cramming before their assessments. The majority of students therefore were doing some sort of revision before assessments. This was supported by our department’s homework policy which was heavily focused on practicing exam style questions. In the week before the assessment week students would be given a revision pack (a mix of information for reference and exam questions with a mark scheme provided). Students saw this homework as part of the revision process as well, they could link their completion of these activities and revision packs in the week before the assessment, to their attainment in the assessments. For many students a poor previous assessment grade inspired them to complete more work before the next assessment. For those who were consistently falling behind, interventions were put in place. Students were experiencing this exact cycle across all subjects pretty much from the start of their secondary careers.

The school culture meant that I never heard complaints about lack of preparation for an assessment due to not knowing how to revise. Conversations were about students not wanting to or being unable to revise, not because they didn’t know how. Maybe students were having conversations about revision in other subject areas or form time, I can’t categorically say that they didn’t. But for me reflecting back, explicitly teaching revision strategies had not been a focus of mine at all.

Coming from this highly structured and prescribed environment to my new schools more individual and independent approach made me really reflect deeply on revision and how to support students in preparing successfully for their public and pre public assessments. This is something that I had been focussing on before I started the SSAT legacy leadership project and have been able to refine using the experiences I have had through the program.

The evolution of my project idea

Retrieval practice is a technique that I have been interested in for several years. It has also enjoyed something of a growth in popularity recently. Retrieval Practice ‘refers to the act of recalling learned information from memory (with little or no support) and every time that information is retrieved, or an answer is generated, it changes that original memory to make it stronger’ (Jones, 2019, 15). All my lessons, across key stages, begin with retrieval practice. Students are given 6 questions to answer, two of the questions are based on the previous lesson, 2 on the previous week’s lesson and 2 on a previous topic. Students have commented on how they understood the usefulness of the starters and the revisiting of this previous knowledge.

Because of the content-heavy nature of the new GCSEs, I saw retrieval practice as an effective way in supporting student’s retention of knowledge over time. In my first year at my current school I was given two year 11 classes to get through the GCSE. Therefore, when I began to think about how to help students organise their revision, retrieval practice was at the forefront of strategies I wanted to get students using. I decided to create multiple choice quizzes organised per GCSE topics on Google Forms. I used these self-marking quizzes during lessons and gave access to students to use them in their own independent revision. Through marking the quizzes together and re-teaching of areas where there were many misconceptions I wanted to provide students with a model of what they could be completing independently as revision.

Looking back now, one of the weaknesses of my approach was that I had created the resources but had not given the students any structure or support in using them. Beyond the modelling in class I had not really given much thought into how to get students to better incorporate retrieval practice into their independent revision practice. I had explained in detail why this strategy was better than the other strategies that they were using, but that had not translated into higher uptake of retrieval practice. Looking at the data from the Google Forms showed me that only a handful of students had used the quizzes as part of their individual revision. As I reflected on why the students were not using these resources I became increasingly aware that my introduction of these methods in March of year 11 was much too late. I had told students that this was the more superior method but I hadn’t explained why in any detail or taught my students about the cognitive science that backed my claims up. I knew that I would have to deal with these issues with my next exam class.

In September 2019 I was given a year 10 GCSE class and I also began the SSAT leadership legacy project. Many students once again complained of finding Geography difficult to revise. Some students who were revising for assessments were not doing as well as they had expected. For me this clearly became an interesting opportunity to try and refine the strategies I had tried to use with my previous year 11s. I decided that revision would be the focus of my think piece but it wasn’t until the December conference that I had a better understanding of exactly how I would move forward with my project.

I was really inspired by Mark Leswell’s workshop, ‘An evidence-based approach to improving attainment’ during the SSAT national conference workshops. He began his session by asking us to rank by order effectiveness several different learning strategies.

Having some knowledge on cognitive science and having completed similar activities in previous CPD I was able to quickly work out the effectiveness, but I was struck by the thought that this was a powerful activity for students who would rank as most effective some of the most ineffective learning strategies due to familiarity. As mentioned previously, one of the weaknesses of my previous experiences with encouraging my students to use more evidence based revision strategies had that I had not taught them the science behind these strategies.

It is in this way that my project began to take shape. I decided that I would survey my students’ understanding of revision and then teach them the cognitive science behind the strategies I was encouraging. I would then ask students to use these more effective strategies before their next assessment and we would reflect on how their attainment had hopefully improved.

I surveyed my students at the start of March 2020 looking at their attitude and understanding of revision. The results were illuminative. The most used strategy was reading their exercise book (70%). Students also reread the textbook (47%). Encouragingly many students also said that they were using Seneca to revise (58%). Seneca is a website learning resource that uses retrieval, interleaving, spacing and visual cues to enhance students’ performance. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to measure the extent to which students were using Seneca independently from the assignments that I set up on the platform for my students before assessment but either way I was encouraged that students had highlighted the website as part of their revision process.

The survey then backed up much of the research that I had seen that showed that many students did not have effective knowledge of revision techniques that worked and instead were attracted to more passive ineffective revision strategies such as re reading and highlighting. I decided that I needed to focus on explaining the science behind retrieval and other revision strategies to my students. I therefore created a revision lesson in which I explained the science behind learning and revision and shared with students several different strategies and how to use these strategies in the context of geography. My students then pledged to use these strategies in the run up to their next assessment. I had delayed their assessment to the end of the term to allow students more revision time of the topic. However, it wasn’t to be. The school closures due to coronavirus were announced on the 20th March 2020 and the project was put on the backburner as we entered the period of remote learning.

Post remote learning

Remote learning and the difficulties that many of my students faced in keeping momentum and motivation has reaffirmed to me just how important the rationale behind this think piece is. As we moved into the new school year not knowing how the Autumn term and beyond will pan out, improving students’ self-regulation and independent study skills was key. For me that has reoriented my project to include the new year 10’s to make sure that students have knowledge of the most effective revision techniques from the start of their GCSE journeys. This was more personal for me as I am a year 10 form tutor.

After speaking with my year team and the head of PSHE and Citizenship at my school I was able to put forth my plan to create a tutor programme where over 3 PSHE lessons for year 10 students on effective revision. The lessons where on how memory works and the most effective evidence based revision strategies with opportunities for students to practice these methods. Several form tutors have fed back to me that the sessions were useful and we are now working collaboratively in brainstorming ways that we can feed effective revision into our year 10 tutor programme in the new year. Due to Covid-19 year group bubbles the majority of year 10 forms are based in computer suites and several forms have been able to utilise these computers for students to use for revision during form time. With my own form we are currently dedicating one form time a week to revision. It has been wonderful seeing students using techniques such as making flash cards, dual coding and Cornell notes in order to revise in these sessions.

Figure 1 PSHE lesson How does memory work?

Alongside this focus on incorporating effective revision in the PSHE curriculum I returned to my original guinea pigs, my current year 11 class, with whom I had started the revision project the previous academic year. I had informally asked students at the start of year 11 if any students had created revision resources using the evidence based revision strategies that they had been taught. Only a handful of students replied that they had. I started to think of ways to make the use of these revision strategies easier for students to use. I wanted to move students away from their familiar techniques of rereading towards more evidence based revision techniques such as retrieval practice. I again returned to Mark Leswell’s presentation where he introduced the next steps to his own department’s attempts in promoting evidence based revision. A one stop shop where students could find all the evidence based resources they needed to use in their own revision.

Figure 2 Mark Leswell’s revision student guide

I decided to create a similar resource for my year 11’s for their next assessment. My resource was based more around the revision strategies section of Mark Leswell’s revision guide. I gave access to this resource to students two weeks before their assessment. I then prepared some pre and post assessment questions that I asked students to complete before alongside the assessment.

Figure 3 My revision task list

The responses to the pre and post assessment survey were informative again. Many students had used the task list and had found it helpful especially in helping to organise their revision. This is what I was hoping for, students who had used the task list felt more confident that they had covered all the content that they needed to.

Figure 4 Student response to survey
Figure 5 Student response to survey

Students were also able to quickly find resources that they needed to find the resources they could use to revise without having to create their own resources. This was attractive for many students.

Figure 6 Student response to survey

Comparing the data from students’ last end of topic assessment in year 10, to their grades in their Development Dynamics assessments shows that 16 out of 27 students were able to see an increase in their grades. 7 out of 27 kept the same grade. I have no way of distinguishing to what extent the revision task list that I had created is responsible for the student’s grade increases but I am encouraged by feedback from the students who have been able to use the resource to improve the effectiveness of their revision.

Next steps

As mentioned previously the project has evolved over my time at my current school. I am looking forward to continuing to develop and grow the project. I will be creating more revision task lists for the GCSE as we go through the year. I have shared these resources across my department and we will be incorporating them into our homework schedule. Additionally, I will continue to promote evidence based revision with my pastoral year team with the creation of a revision intervention to be run as part of our tutor time timetable. We are currently still discussing the most efficient ways of rolling out this program and creating record and rewards students’ efforts. I have also been asked to share the PSHE program with the year 11 team as well as keeping them abreast of any further developments.

References

FEDDERN, L. et al, 2018, Retrieval, interleaving, spacing and visual cues as ways to improve independent learning outcomes at scale, Impact, viewed at 17th August 2020 [https://impact.chartered.college/article/feddern-retrieval-interleaving-spacing-visual-cues-independent-learning] JONES, K. (2019). RETRIEVAL PRACTICE: research & resources for every classroom. [S.l.], JOHN CATT EDUCATIONAL LTD.
KAMINSKE, A. , 2019, Can Students Change Their Study Habits? The Learning Scientists, viewed August 17 2020 https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2019/8/1-1

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