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Cracking the Revision Conundrum…Take the Revision Challenge!

With the exam season on the near horizon, it’s time our classes got down to some serious revision. But we all know how hard it can be to motivate our students to revise; what’s more, even when we can be fairly sure they are revising, we’re all too frequently also painfully aware that they’re not necessarily doing a very good job…

So, how can we make ‘revision’ work harder for us and our students to boost their success? Evidence shows that alongside quality feedback, metacognition and self-regulation skills are the most effective means to guarantee progress[1]; but making this a reality is a challenge. 

It can be hard to devote too much time to exploring effective techniques. We are working in an environment where ‘the focus is on providing content and not on training students how to effectively acquire it.’[2] Perhaps we can rely on the generic strategies and study skills? Or the notion that students will somehow independently make sense of how these can be best applied to our subject? This is unfortunately not likely… Research indicates[3] that transferability is problematic and the intended transfer of ‘skills’ to domain specific contexts typically doesn’t occur – unless teachers show their students how to apply a learning skill within their subject domain. Take mnemonics, mind-mapping or flash cards, for example: we need to show our learners how to make them work within subject context if they are to have impact.

So, what does research identify as effective strategies that we can work into our practice, demonstrating to our learners how to apply them? John Dunlosky et al. [2013] conducted a comprehensive literature review in this area and found evidence that some strategies are significantly more effective than others…

Highly effective [well evidenced in the research literature]:

Practice Testing [with an emphasis on the formative rather than summative: i.e. the testing needn’t always take the form of high-stakes, marking-intensive, full scale exam practice opportunities]. Can be highly effective if used in class and at home on a smaller scale and regularly to check and reinforce understanding and progress [and might take the form of any opportunity that involves the student retrieving from memory, which is proven to boost long-term memory]. Failure to retrieve the key content or concepts also identifies learning gaps for both teacher and learner.

Distributive Practice: A distributive programme of practice [and practice testing] – revising/testing knowledge and understanding a little but often - has been empirically proven to be significantly more effective than massed practice [i.e. ‘cramming’], which results in ephemeral gains.

Promising [but needing further research]:

Interleaved Practice: This is about varying the focus of the learning across time. Due to the nature of the curriculum [and the resource – e.g. text books – serving the curriculum], we have a tendency to ‘block’ our practice [tackling one thing at a time] – encouraging a ‘massed’ approach. There is evidence, however, [particularly in problem-solving domains] that mixing up material and interleaving practice is beneficial for deeper learning, supporting a greater retention of knowledge for a longer period of time.

Elaborative Interrogation and self-explanation: Elaborative interrogation entails the learner not only engaging with material at surface level [e.g. what photosynthesis is] but also elaborating/questioning why that fact may be true. Self-explanation involves the learner self-explaining what they are doing and why they are doing it in that way [e.g. Why did I just decide to do X – where X is any move relevant to solving the problem at hand].

Strategies shown to have limited impact [but highly favoured by learners]:

Rereading and highlighting – rereading has been shown to have limited and ephemeral benefits, failing to enhance understanding of the material [which is promoted via strategies like those above]. Students need to know that highlighting is only the beginning of the journey and that after they read and highlight, they need to restudy the material using more effective strategies – allowing for deeper inference and connections to be made across the material.

Summarization – can be useful where students are explicitly coached on how to summarize meaningfully [within subject domain]. All too often they simply paraphrase without enhancing deeper levels of understanding.


[1] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/resources/teaching-learning-toolkit

[2] Dunlosky, 2013, Strengthening the Student Toolbox, Study Strategies to Boost Learning available at http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf

[3] E.g. See Perkins & Salomon, 1992, at http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198809_perkins.pdf