Re-reading isn’t the same as revision

This guest post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

We are now in an education system where assessment and testing throughout the year has become the norm. Students sit unit tests, end of term tests, topic assessments, mock exams and the beloved final exams. The frenzy of these seasons, especially at mocks and final exams, can become a whirlwind for both teachers and students. Revising for numerous different exams, attending regular revision sessions and covering topics for a second or third time in lessons can become very overwhelming. Many schools are highly effective at supporting students throughout this period but a few questions or concerns come up over and over again.

Recently I was very lucky to hear John Fenlon, Director of Learning at Brookfield Community School talk about students and revision. The main message I took away from his speech was a very simple one:

“Students mistake reading for revision”

There are numerous times when student inform us that they have undertaken revision prior to a test. When we then dig a little deeper, a common approach for them seems to be re-reading their notes. This has been highlighted in many places as being an ineffective yet commonly used strategy. Only a few weeks back the Sutton Trust and Professor Rob Coe noted that there was no evidence that this works. According to the report, “[re-reading] gives a satisfying – but deceptive – feeling of fluency and familiarity with the material”. It seems that an approach which can become the default setting for many students is actually not time well spent.

Sutton Trust Report

But why do so many students mistake this as revision? Could it be a lack of knowledge of what effective revision is? Could it be that students simply haven’t been shown methods that work? Could it be that the deceptive feeling of familiarity after reading notes is too much of a draw for students? Whatever it is, replacing note reading with a different strategy could bring about better results.

Testing (or retrieval practice)

There is a wealth of literature out there explaining how one of the best methods of revising is through retrieval practice or testing. The sheer process of forcing your brain to locate and use information improves what Robert Bjork calls storage strength and retrieval strength. According to Bjork, these two factors are the key to ensuring information is retained in the long term memory for a sustained period of time. The higher the strength of these, the easier it is to a) hold this information and b) locate it. Re-reading notes, especially close to an exam (seen as cramming), can give the illusion that information is well retained, only for it to disappear very quickly. Re-reading notes simply doesn’t build up storage strength or retrieval strength. So it seems that encouraging students to test themselves during revision is a more effective approach. The problem though (in my personal experience) is that students don’t usually engage with this method. Some common comments from students I’ve taught cover things like “Tests are boring” to “It’s too much effort”. It is therefore important that we highlight that tests can come in many forms. This can range from exam papers (with mark schemes), flash cards, mini quizzes, listing 10 facts about topic x from memory, linking subject content to a stimulus image and more. The message should be that testing/retrieval practice is good and low risk/varying/fun tests all help.

Have we actually shown them how to revise?

How many of us have been guilty of saying this in the run up to exams? “Your exam is in two week so get revising!”
On the face of it this seems innocent enough. But have we actually shown them ways to revise? If a student uses an ineffective approach to revise then they’ll just go away and continue to use this ineffective approach. Can we instead, at key times over the year, build in sections of our lessons to explicitly teach students some revision strategies? Can we agree a core group of strategies as a department which we all share with our classes? Could this go further and become whole school approach with 5 simple revision methods we all agree to and teach our students? Make it the norm with students? With all of the hard work that goes on in subject areas it would be a shame to lose it purely because students are unaware how to revise better.



Use mnemonics, acronyms and similar strategies

Although they are not the answer to revision on their own, these simple methods are triggers or starting points for retrieving information. They are a great memory aid that can help locate information that students can then expand on in exams. A History teacher I know shares the EAT PASTA acronym as a way to help students remember the Roman Public Health System. The easy and catchy phrase helps them recall ‘Empirical observations, Aqueduct, Town Planning, Public Baths……’. Without grouping them together as a single phrase I wonder how easy it would have been to remember them?

Teach them how to make (and use) notes effectively

Note taking can be an easy way to condense pages full of information. Although they will still need to be used in a more effective way, showing students better strategies to make notes can be very helpful. What we are aiming to do here is turn pages of notes into something that the brain can use more efficiently. Asking students to revise from a 50 word notes page rather than 500 words of book notes has got to be a better approach. We are also trying to avoid students copying bulks of texts and equating this to ‘doing some revision’. So how can we synthesise notes from class into tighter revision notes?

There is a multitude of ways but getting students to the following may help:
• Identify key words that either summarise or act as a trigger for larger concepts
• Use images to explain ideas
• Condense paragraphs or long explanations into just one simple sentence
• Divide topics up and number them so you know you have 8 things to remember about topic x, or 4 things to remember about topic y.
• Chunk notes into sections
• Substitute words for symbols to keep word count down.
(Adapted from J. Fenlon)

It is worth pointing out that the original class notes are still a vital source of information and should be used when students need to check or clarify their updated revision notes.

Chunk your revision

Cognitive psychologist, George Millar, found that the average human working memory can process 7 (+/- 2) pieces of information in any one go. Using chunking as a revision method therefore helps the remembering process of large pieces of knowledge. Demonstrate the effectiveness of this with students in your lessons. Take the hardest or most content heavy topic and actively show how to break it down into sub groups. Give them the lesson to practise it and then ask them a week later. Hopefully the results will help show how well the method works. By dividing a topic up into smaller sections we feel we have less things to remember, when actually in reality we are remembering the same amount.

Forgetting Curve


Space it out – cramming and nearly forgetting

Massing practice or cramming, especially reading notes the night before an exam, is not as effective as students believe. For that short period of time the information they are trying to remember feels reassuringly well retained. The problem is that this information may have a high retrieval strength in the short term but is quickly forgotten. A better way that helps store information for longer is spacing revision out. Over time this information begins to be slowly forgotten. By then revising it again, we retrieve it and increase its storage strength. Planning out revision so you cover a different subject or topic on different nights, then revisiting it a week or so later, is much better in the long run than cramming the night before.

Build it into your curriculum so you don’t have the exam build up frenzy

The build-up to exams and revision season can be a very hectic one. Teachers and students run and attend numerous intervention sessions and workshops in an effort to be best prepared. Is this the wrong way around though? Instead of a furious last few months, could we design our curriculum so that regular testing, retrieval and revision is engrained in our subject area? Regular mini quizzes, fun tests, retrieval practice, reflection, concept mapping and other strategies could be rolled out from the start. Mapping out the spacing, interleaving and testing of topics as a department means that revision/retrieval becomes second nature with students.

And if you are going to read….

Read around the subject you are revising for. If you are looking at science and technology in sport, read up on the immense work of Team GB and Team Sky’s cycling teams. If you are looking at looking at sponsorship, read articles on the impact sponsors have in the NBA or Premier League. Reading around the topic area helps students’ link content knowledge into real life which in turn helps strengthen understanding and memory. It also provides excellent examples for teams.

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