Drop The Drop-Down Days
Henry Sauntson examines the challenges and potential drawbacks of last-minute revision approaches, such as drop-down days and holiday revision sessions, in preparing students for GCSE exams, arguing instead for a more effective strategy.
Schools are slow-cookers; the lid begins to sweat around March and then rattle in late April as the GCSE-year students reach the end of their stewing. The natural action of all schools, intent on ensuring the best possible results for both the students and their own dashboards, is the last-minute revision approach; what to do in the ever-lengthening run-up to the GCSE exams in May and June.
All subjects want their students to give them their time, but with every student taking a minimum of 5 GCSEs – and ideally 8 or more – that’s a lot of ways to split a student, and a very thin way to spread them. A further natural recourse then is of course the maximising of time for subject areas by setting up ‘Holiday Revision’ sessions and ‘Drop-down Days’, where students spend an entire day (either in term time or outside it) working on a particular subject area.
But what of the collateral disruption? Every drop-down day for one subject has an immediate and very real impact on all other subjects; students are missing curriculum portrayal, their routines are disrupted; more cognitive damage is caused than perhaps learning gain is made as students struggle to adjust to the changes in their established and rehearsed timetable patterns.
Then there’s the paradox of the Holiday Revision sessions, with whole days dedicated to specific curriculum subjects – those students who attend these are either motivated enough to revise well anyway and therefore get nothing from it or they are attending merely to use it as a form of justification of having ‘tried their best’ later down the line so don’t actually want to be there; either way the motivations are not intrinsic, and the sessions largely ineffectual. They show willingness, but they don’t show impact. Yes, I am generalising, but if we look closer into specific subject areas I am sure we would struggle to show a genuine correlation between attendance at these sessions and improvement in outcomes.
This approach is seemingly counter-productive with the agreed and established principles of effective learning; spaced practice over a longer period of time, with content interleaved and regularly revisited to strengthen recall; cramming doesn’t work, yet that is in essence what Drop-Down and Holiday Revision Days are. So, how do we offset the issues that this approach has the power to present?
There is little contestation of the evidence behind Spaced Practice, with a number of significant research studies demonstrating its impact; when combined with low-stakes quizzing and regular, purposeful retrieval, students can be supported in developing strong mental representations of concepts, recalling in a range of situations and transferring that knowledge to different problems.
In their 2022 paper Pan, Carpenter and Butler posit that ‘successful learning requires building factual knowledge as well as an understanding of how that knowledge can be integrated, utilised and applied in new situations’, with durable knowledge being built by when ‘learners have to repeatedly study and use the information that they are trying to learn’; not only is knowledge regularly recalled and checked but it also affords the mental break that, in their words, ‘encourages more effective attention’.
The issue with the Drop-Down Day is that it is just that – a day. A day is a long time to expect students to pay ‘effective’ attention and, given that attention is the ‘gateway to cognition’ (Hobbiss), we don’t spend enough time factoring it into our teaching. We can’t just expect students to pay attention over 6 hours because we want them to, no matter how many ‘brain breaks’ we put in. Teachers, too, suffer from overload and burnout; these are exhausting days both in the conception and the realisation; to me, they’re just not worth it unless designed with care.
So, what do we do about it? Well, to go back to Pan et al, ‘spacing and retrieval practice can be combined to enhance learning more effectively than either strategy alone’ – we form the method of ‘successive relearning’. This re-earning involves, as Pan et al put it, ‘an initial session in which learners try to retrieve the information they are learning and then receive feedback to check their accuracy, repeating retrieval practice until they are able to recall all of the information to a predetermined criterion’. No, that criterion is up to you but it needs to be made clear to the students too – motivation comes from knowing your destinations. Each additional ‘relearning’ session is a combination of retrieval and feedback using the same criterion for success but – and it is a big ‘but’ – this long-term learning we strive for is best attained when these sessions are spaced out, not crammed together.
Any time we set up a learning opportunity or experience for our students we are, consciously or not, promoting its approach as a useful one; we are saying, with Drop-Down Days, that this is a good way to study. For students to learn successfully they need routines for that learning – the right things to do, using the right resources, at the right time. Routines are at their best when they prioritise consistency over challenge and are used regularly to allow for rehearsal and, in time, automaticity, freeing up cognitive capacity for attention on learning. We must be aware, therefore, of the subconscious impact of school decisions around curriculum on students’ own self-regulation and metacognitive awareness; ‘if the school is making me do this, then it must be a good thing to do’… we have a duty to promote effective revision strategies and allocation of study time.
Often, too, Drop-Down days and Holiday Revision sessions are led by staff who may, in terms of pedagogical and instructional approach, be unfamiliar to the students; this means we must focus solely on content and strategy, not relationships. However, relationships are vital – the forming of the attachment by the student to the new teacher and the possibly unfamiliar learning environment will have detrimental effects on their capacity for attention; different students will behave in different ways when removed from the routines of their classroom peers, location, teacher approach and beliefs et al. Are these days, therefore, far harder to get right than they are to get wrong?
Equity is another factor; for sessions like these to be beneficial it is also important that they are equitable – not one teacher planning reams of content across a day and another hoping to ‘wing it’ or be ‘responsive’; the planning and preparation must be collaborative, focussed on curriculum content and clearly mapped in terms of what is retrieved and when – along with how feedback is given – during the successive relearning experiences.
In conclusion, such days can have their benefits but only if they are carefully thought through, their purpose clear and their position in a curriculum made explicit; subjects need to be able to plan their curriculum portrayal in the knowledge that these days are part of it, and then design the days themselves to best reflect the principles of the aforementioned ‘Successive Relearning’; focussed retrieval and feedback activities around previously taught and previously revisited concepts and knowledge, as well as taking into account the need to maximise students’ ability to pay attention to content over a prolonged period of time.
Plenty of notice is also needed to flag up the potential disruption to established behavioural, cognitive and learning routines for students and to consider the impact of the collateral damage within the structure of the timetable. If all of these are factored in at the outset and, in a sense, a ‘pre-mortem’ conducted to identify potential barriers and conflicts before they occur, putting actions in place for each one during the planning phase, then the implementation and hopefully impact of these days will be more positive and purposeful.
You can read more articles for HWRK Magazine by Henry Sauntson here.