A revision revolution

Author: Helen Howell
Published: 24/01/2023

Why do we need to revolutionise the way we approach revision in schools?

In the introduction to The Revision Revolution, I describe having a fairly positive experience of revision at school. Why, then, would I write a book advocating a revolution in the way revision is approached in education? Well, there are a couple of crucial caveats to my positive experience of revision. Firstly, I was lucky. Or to be more accurate, I was privileged. In every aspect of my life, I was afforded advantages over many others: through supportive and academic parents, a hard-working circle of friends, a home environment conducive to study and even a private tutor to help me with those subjects I struggled with (notably, maths – I would drive my dad insane with maths homework and he is an incredibly patient man!).

The second caveat is that the aforementioned support only took me so far. I excelled at GCSE mainly through ‘cramming’, but this approach does not make for long-term learning and I struggled in further and higher education. To be completely honest, I was lucky that my degree consisted mainly of coursework essays, as I just did not know how to make learning stick. Approaches to making learning stick through the science of memory were never taught at any point in my education from school to university. The consequence of this is that the achievement gap widens. Those lucky enough to have certain advantages often find a way to revise and succeed, but those with everything working against them, sometimes including the significant barrier of lower literacy levels, need explicit instruction in revision to even the playing field.

The explicit teaching of study skills, then, is a social justice issue. Students should have a repertoire of study skills to draw from, which have been explicitly taught throughout their schooling, giving them opportunities to succeed. Fewer last-minute, ineffective interventions and more mapping of study skills throughout the curriculum, creating a culture of empowerment where exam anxiety is reduced and confidence to excel is increased. Convinced? I hope so! Onto the all-important question of how we create this culture of effective study with equal opportunities for all, then. It all starts with the science…

How do we create a revision revolution?

Firstly, there will probably be an element of debunking required with all stakeholders. Students in particular, probably see revision as a chore – something linked specifically to exams and involving last-minute cramming. Unfortunately, we often encourage this in schools through holding interventions in year 11 and setting revision prior to a test. Instead, let’s shift the understanding of ‘revision’ from ‘preparing for a test’ to ‘making learning stick’. If we look at the morphology of the word, it simply means ‘looking again’ so we ‘look again’ at learning material in order to help that learning stick – it becomes part of learning and embedded in curricula. It is not an add-on that students have little understanding of how to do therefore fuelling negative connotations of revision as a monster: unfamiliar and frightening.

The process of revising: making ineffective strategies effective

Simple tweaks to ineffective strategies make revision effective. For example, if we teach students about the benefits of ‘desirable difficulties’, they will understand why retrieving information from memory, although it requires more effort than re-reading and highlighting, is preferable. When students are explicitly shown how to make notes and use them for retrieval practice, use The Leitner method with flashcards, quiz using elaboration, use metacognition as part of the revision process, and space and interleave their study, they can revise effectively as part of the learning process not just as a means to an end.

It's important to consider your context here: where are there opportunities to create this tangible culture of effective study? Could the science of memory be incorporated into your pastoral curriculum? Could all Heads of Department be trained to consider where to embed study skills within their carefully sequenced curricula? Could parent meetings, presentations and newsletters be used to teach them simple and effective strategies for use at home? The opportunities are endless. I hope you enjoy your journey towards effective revision for all; please do get in touch as I would love to hear all about it.

You can watch Helen Howell's free Revision revolution webinar on-demand and download the accompanying PowerPoint.

Helen Howell

Helen Howell (@cura_dora) is Director of English at the Blue Coat School in Oldham. She's the author of The Revision Revolution: How to build a culture of effective study in your school, co-written with Ross Morrison McGill. She's passionate about encouraging schools to build a culture of study - so that students revise effectively and even enjoy it!