We all know that students struggle with revision, whether it’s because they don’t know what to revise, how to revise, or why they should bother at all. In this article, Eve Draper explains how she teaches the skills of revision to her students.

A few years before I started teaching, I was taking my first driving lesson. Even though I’d passed my theory test I didn’t know how to use a clutch to change gear at the right time, how to navigate a roundabout or how to park a car. Despite having read the rulebooks, been in cars and seen people drive for all of my life, I couldn’t do it. Without someone explicitly teaching me how to drive I would not have passed my test. I needed specific knowledge on the ‘how to’.

Yet here I was in my first year of teaching, standing in front of my class, collecting homework in. I’d asked them to revise for an upcoming assessment. The students had worked hard in my carefully planned lessons but I was disappointed the next week. The revision homework I collected was copied-out notes, a beautifully-crafted mind map with bubble writing or an A4 page of writing where every word was highlighted. But they had not rehearsed moving information between their long-term and short-term memory. I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

After doing some reading on metacognition, I’d found my golden ticket for revision: it needs to be taught. Students need to be taught how to revise themselves without me leading them through it. It seems obvious now. Just like any other skill, revision needs instruction, scaffolding and practice. A few years later and I now set aside lessons to teach this skill and how to apply it specifically to Geography.

So, here’s the scenario: I have three lessons to revise with Year 11 until an assessment and they need to be revising at home too. What do I do?

Metacognition

Before I deliver any revision in class, I explicitly introduce metacognition and the ‘science’ underpinning it. This time is well invested if it is completely new to students.

I begin by mentioning Perkins’ four types of metacognitive learners (1992) and students identify where they are and where they want to be.

We then discuss the principle of Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, which shows why revision is so helpful and why regular revision with spaced practice is even more helpful.

Next I introduce my four steps of revision (retrieval practice, learn the facts, application, reflection). Different types of activities fit into these categories so it can be adapted for all subjects. Finally the categories can be arranged into ‘revision sequences’. All of this key information is given to students so they can refer back to it in the lesson and at home as their ‘how to’ guide.

A clear introduction provides a common language to talk about revision and gives a rationale as to why this way works particularly well. Like my driving lessons, the theory is needed but without deliberate practice it means nothing. As such, revision lessons in my classroom usually follow one of the simple revision sequences. First this shows students this process works and second they are practicing the skill of independent revision with the added benefit of the teacher in the classroom. This then improves student confidence to tackle revision in their own time.

1 Retrieval practice

The next step is to share the topics we will cover in class with students and give them tools to find gaps in their knowledge, such as checklists or quiz questions. This is key as there is little point revising the knowledge they know the most – I make this clear to students too.

It also means they can plan their own revision outside of school more effectively and puts the onus on them. I then identify the topics I’ll cover in class, based on data from retrieval quizzes, assessment or mock exam results, learning checklists and also by asking students.

The first task in the lesson contains approximately 8-10 short-answer retrieval questions. I already know there is a knowledge gap but it is helpful to pinpoint specific areas that I should place more emphasis on in the lesson. The quiz also establishes a starting point and reminds students of some of the content they need to know.

2 Learn the facts

Now students need to learn the facts. This will look different independently compared to in the classroom. In the classroom, the teacher is the best resource so I will recap the topic. I ask students to do nothing but listen. As a geographer, images and diagrams are helpful to recap content so I may use my visualiser or some slides. Questions can be useful but I don’t want to introduce any misconceptions so I try to balance this carefully. It’s all about clear delivery of accurate information.

Students then complete a notes summary from memory on what I recapped. A template with scaffolding such as headings, bullet points, incomplete diagrams, etc, provides a quick prompt and enables notes to be made quickly. This should be challenging.

The hard work of retrieving information from different parts of the memory and rehearsing that process is how revision is done. I encourage students to think hard for as long as they can bear and then let them use their resources (revision guide, exercise book, knowledge organiser, etc.) to fill in any remaining gaps. This step teaches students to be able and confident to do this section without a teacher at home.

3 Application

Knowledge is one side of the coin; skills to answer the right question in the right way in an exam is another. Application is all about applying their knowledge in the right context. Exam question practice is useful here, although in different subjects this will look different and some revision lessons may skip this step and focus on knowledge only. Sometimes I will re-teach a specific skill if I know that there are weaknesses, before my students practice independently.

Again I follow the model from above: first attempt the practice questions from memory and then improve using revision resources independently. This is where I find it most beneficial to circulate and provide feedback by correcting misconceptions and helping them to improve their improvements.

4 Reflection

The most significant skill in the metacognitive process is being able to independently reflect and change to improve. In the classroom, I can model this alongside students by ending the lesson with a discussion of the revision sequence we just completed. Before we do that, I ask them to repeat the retrieval quiz from the start of the lesson. The resulting follow-up discussion may go something like this:

Are your scores higher? Did your revision work? Yes, so the forgetting curve is up to x% on that topic. When might you revise that topic next? Should we add some paired quizzing next time before we do exam questions? Should we split the teacher talk into smaller chunks? Can you repeat this sequence at home using your revision resources instead of me talking to you? How will you identify your next topic to revise? What will you use to do your own revision sequence? And off they go…

Looking back and moving forwards

Establishing these tools has been hugely beneficial to my exam classes over the last few years. Last academic year we had to revise huge amounts of disrupted learning due to the pandemic. I was worried students would get bored of repeating the same structured lesson for weeks and weeks. They didn’t. Even when I offered an alternative, they chose revision sequences. The feedback they gave was that they knew it worked so why change it… I really couldn’t argue with that!

To take this further, the language and skills of the metacognitive process of revision can be introduced in KS3 to give learners more time to develop and improve. There is also an opportunity for a whole-school approach to use the same language around revision across all subjects.

Parent sessions on ‘how to revise’ can also be of huge benefit too: the more people who are on the same page, the easier it will be for students.

However, I think the focus of learning something new should always be on practicing with an expert, to learn exactly how to do it, whether that’s a teacher in a classroom, or my very patient driving instructor on a quiet housing estate!

References and further reading

Perkins, D (1992) Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. New York: Free Press

Ridley, N (2020) Understanding how to learn: An exploration into teaching metacognition explicitly https://teaandlearning.home.blog/2020/01/12/metacognition/

EEF (2018) Metacognition and self-regulated learning: guidance report

Author

Eve Draper is a Teacher of Geography and an ITT mentor in East Yorkshire. She loves all the usual Geography teacher cliches like maps, hills, the sea and a good walk!

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