Dr Jo Bentham looks afresh at evidence-backed revision strategies

As the examination season comes to a close, it is not just the students who breathe that sigh of relief.
I have seen several posts on social media sites with teachers requesting ideas for revision lessons as they have exhausted their repertoire. How do we make revision lessons more engaging, more exciting, more useful? It is not just the students, but also the teachers who are happy to see the end of the revision phase. For most of my teaching career I have struggled with this end phase of a programme of study, be it GCSE or A Level. The idea of revising for me is about reviewing, altering and amending learning and thinking, which I believe should be tackled as part of the original learning phase. So in order to avoid this predicament, I prefer to call it examination preparation. However, even with a change of term, I still struggle with these sessions. How effective are the activities that I use in producing a better performance? Should I be encouraging the use of mind maps, or practising examination questions, or using multiple choice questions to cover key subject information. Would I be better to use ‘Quizlet’ and ‘Kahoot’ or are their group board games? Often, I can end up repeating activities and printing out again hard copies of the specification which has been misplaced from Year 10 / Year 12. I am often frustrated by the feeling that I am doing the ‘revision’ work for the students. Do we also need to include examination technique practice as part of the revision process, or are they separate activities? So, as educators, how do we enable our students to develop an independent and effective approach towards their examination preparation?
One of the complications that we encounter is that revision is possibly one of the most individual academic processes. Students have different knowledge bases and will have different sets of understanding. They will also have different reactions to the onset of the examination period. They will also have different ideas about their revision technique preferences. Added to this, there will also be variations in their personal situations which may impact on the effectiveness of their revision time.
Over the years I have found that students often develop a more passive approach to revision. Writing out notes, reading these notes, re-reading, and then reducing this information into bullet points enables them to recognise subject knowledge, but does not always enable them to recall or use this knowledge. However, this becomes their safety blanket. It may be much easier to read through lists of information and be convinced that they know this, rather than attempt a past examination question, or give a talk on an aspect of a subject topic. A more active approach to revision would see the students using and organising subject information. Rather than demonstrating mastery of memory, the students are encouraged to develop their skills of understanding through application of the underlying themes to contextual evidence or known examples, or through creating diagrams or charts that represent a topic.

In recent years, with a change towards linear examination structures for both GCSE and A Level, schools have begun to assess the evidence around revision strategies in order to identify the most effective evidence based revision strategies. So, what are the revision strategies that evidence suggests are the most effective? A good place to start is Alex Quigley’s ‘Top Ten Revision Strategies’ blog post (https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2018/01/top-10-revision-strategies/) . He provides a list of practical revision methods, whilst also reinforcing the need for teachers to teach and model the method, which will then need to be further practised by the students. All assertions about revision are linked to evidence that provides supportive reasoning. The ten strategies cover quizzing, flashcards, and graphic organisers. Other strategies include activities based on the ‘Just a Minute’ radio game as well as Cornell note taking and ‘exam wrapping’ which was a new idea for me. Encouragingly, there is evidence to support the necessity of students needing to practise examination questions in a structured way. Worked examples and preparing their own answers do help students to assess their own performance and develop their own techniques.
The work of the Learning Scientists (http://www.learningscientists.org) has identified a number of strategies that can be applied to the revision process. They focus on six strategies – retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving, elaboration, concrete examples, and dual coding. It is worth looking at their downloadable materials which identify the evidence behind the strategy as well as demonstrating the practical application.
John Dunlosky’s 2013 journal article “Strengthening the Student Toolbox” drew upon a number of studies to identify the most effective revision strategies. Most ineffective were highlighting, re-reading, and summarising. Most effective were practice testing and spaced practice. (https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf)
The evidence base is based on general applications, and what we need to do as Business and Economics educators is to consider how these methods can be applied to our subject area. We also need to consider how and when we begin to teach these revision strategies. Should we include these strategies from the very start of the programme of study, or do we complete the specification and then introduce these recall techniques? We also need to consider how examination question technique can be incorporated into a comprehensive revision programme.
For myself, researching for this article has provided me with the encouragement of an evidence base which means that I will not be wasting class revision time on activities that are inconsistent in promoting performance. I am also hoping to identify key retrieval practice points in next year’s scheme of work.
Dr Jo Bentham is a business and economics teacher at Haberdashers’ Adams Grammar School.
If any teachers have used any of these revision strategies with GCSE Business and A Level Business Studies, and are happy to share your thoughts and experiences, please feel free to contact me on jobentham@gmail.com
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-22565912 (viewed 02/06/2018)
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/07/the-way-youre-revising-may-let-you-down-in-exams-and-heres-why (viewed 02/06/2018)
https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2013/04/effective-revision-strategies/ (viewed 02/06/2018)
http://www.learningscientists.org/ (viewed 02/06/2018)
https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf (viewed 02/06/2018)