Revision tips: how to reinforce learning in the run up to exams

Thanks to Marc Naylor, Deputy Head at The Ravensbourne School in Bromley

How do you know a student has learnt something you’ve taught and how do you ensure they can retrieve that knowledge in an exam scenario? This article aims to point you in the direction of some practical theory, resources, and revision tips that will ensure you know your students have learnt what you’ve taught them and can retrieve that knowledge, the next day, month or year.

The Learning Scientists and their theories

About 18 months ago I came across The Learning Scientists website through Twitter and it changed much of what I do to practice the content of the English / English Literature GCSEs with my students.

The two biggest ideas I borrowed from them were the ideas of retrieval practice and spaced practice (testing knowledge at regular intervals). The ideas are based around cognitive psychology which shows that the mechanics of memory have a huge impact on learning. Essentially, long term memory has a large capacity and working memory a limited capacity. Educationalist, Dylan William states that Cognitive load theory  is “the single most important thing” for teachers to know as the mental effort it takes to complete a task is finite and therefore you want to plan tasks that do not overload the working memories of students. Consequently, if students can transfer knowledge into their long term memory they have a better chance of recalling it in an exam.

There are 6 strategies to help achieve this according to The Learning Scientists:

  1. Spaced Practice – Spacing out studying over time
  2. Retrieval Practice – Practicing bringing information to mind
  3. Elaboration – Explaining and describing ideas with many details
  4. Interleaving – Switching between ideas when you study
  5. Concrete Examples – Using specific examples to understand abstract ideas
  6. Dual Coding- Combining words and visuals

Revision tips

How can you help students?

Train students to know that it’s better to space their study than cramming the night before an exam. Demonstrate this through your own practice in the classroom and the homework you set. For example ensure revision lessons and homework are taking place at least 2 weeks prior to every assessment but in reality some form of low stakes assessment; recalling content or practicing a skill should take place at some point in every lesson.

Practice retrieval with your students daily, weekly, monthly, termly, yearly:

  • Content should build on previously learned information!
  • Set up opportunities in class for retrieval practice so they know what to do at home.
  • Differentiation: Prompts, templates and resources may be required.
  • Focus should always be on gaps in their knowledge!

How can I ensure students remember things from one lesson to the next?

Strengthen memory by having students retrieve more often and in different ways:

  • Flashcards
  • Low stakes quizzes
  • Exit cards
  • Recall exercises- writing summaries, end of chapter questions, 5 a day starters to name just a few techniques.

Does it work?

In short, yes! My low ability class were able to accurately discuss Machievellianism in Macbeth when referring to a number of characters and my top set class could confidently debate the validity of psychoanalytic theory (id, ego and superego) in An Inspector Calls. Skills they developed through spaced, retrieval practice.

Marc Naylor has been teaching for 13 years across two mixed comprehensive schools in South London. He has taught English, English Literature, Media Studies and Film Studies, predominantly at Key Stage 4 and 5. He’s also taken on additional responsibilities including: Enterprise Co-ordinator, 2i/c English, Head of English, Media Studies and  Literacy, 2 i/c Sixth Form, Assistant Head Teacher Learning and Most Able, Assistant Head Teacher Achievement and Progress, and he is currently Deputy Head Teacher Achievement and Progress at The Ravensbourne School in Bromley.

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