04 March 2024

The Monday Briefing: Don't You Know

The Monday Briefing: Dont You Know

With our final set of mocks at the College now just two weeks away, a focused period of revision is absolutely critical for students in order to help support their preparations for the final exams.

Revision can be somewhat of an enigma for students.

In fact, it’s one of the questions I am asked most as an educator: what is the best way to revise?

Thousands of hours of research has gone into this very question, and the answer isn’t a simple one. There is no ‘silver bullet’ answer to this - no one, all conquering way to make learning stick so that it is usable for the exams which follow at the end of a programme of study.

All I am able to give is my expertise concerning the matter.

I think it’s best in these cases to stick with the six key questions involved (what, who, where, when, how and why), then explain some good practice and some obvious pitfalls which cause students to then struggle to meet expectations.

Let’s start with the most important question: why.

Any studying, leaning or revision taking place should be doing so for a reason. This may be to pass a test in order to gain a qualification or a skill, but the heart of the person doing this work must ‘be in it’, otherwise there really is no point in investing one’s time in this pursuit.

This ‘why’ question should be asked to oneself regularly: why am I doing this? Why am I giving so much effort?

This should really happen in accordance with medium and long term goals set out by that person. Perhaps their long term goal is to eventually be a doctor or a lawyer, with the medium goal linked to this, perhaps in the guise of gaining a place at a top university. This ‘why’ remains a constant then and becomes a driving motivation to self improvement.

It should be kept in mind that ‘because I want to’ will always trump ‘because I have to’ in terms of motivation. Positive energy always beats negative energy.

I’ve told students that it’s a good idea to display your goals somewhere in your room - it can keep you honest, and make you remember why you are doing something when at your lowest point.

In an excellent ending to the Simpson’s episode ‘And Maggie Makes Three’, Homer uses pictures of his younger daughter to manipulate the words in the ‘Special Demotivational Plaque’ given to him by Mr Burns when he is given his job back at the Nuclear Power Plant, changing ‘Don’t Forget: You are here Forever’ into ‘Do It For Her’ when he is trying to reconcile the fact that he will be stuck in the same dull job for the rest of his career.

People need motivation, and constantly reminding oneself of why is a good way to do this.

Let’s move on to who:

Obviously the person who should be doing most of the revising is the person who has to do the upcoming exam - but that doesn’t mean that they should feel that they have to go it alone. Conversely, it’s best to set up a system where those around them are able to help. 

There are plenty of potential ‘helpers’ to make this happen: 

Teachers - and those who work at the College are one email away from being able to assist in any way; 

Classmates - work together and challenge each other to create resources from which everyone can learn from; 

Parents - check in on your son or daughter and be part of the journey by getting involved in asking them to explain what they are doing and why, then asking where they can help - even if it just means checking answers to questions they are trying to answer.

One of the huge mistakes which students can make is to, when it comes closer to exams, stay home - losing touch with the very teachers who have helped them come to understand the things they are trying to learn. That relationship should remain one with regular contact before, during and after the exam period.

Now to where:

Where will the exams be taking place? 

Sounds a ridiculous question, but how many students actually ask this with prior planning in mind?

When I was at school, all of our exams took place in the main hall of my school, somewhere I’d never been to complete school work before. I’d been there for assemblies and sat there for performances, but had no experience of silent work there. Such ‘fish out of water’ occurrences can be very unsettling for some students. Fortunately for me, I’m quite adaptable, but not everyone is.

At the College we hold our exams in a place every student has been - our supervised study room - and those who are eligible for a small room also get experience of those. Comfort in an exam situation is conducive to good performance - so some thought should be given to this.

In a similar way, where will I revise?

Procrastination is an enemy of revision, and so students should plan accordingly. If students have rooms filled with distractions like phones, TVs and computers (when not used for work), then in no way is that the right location for studying. 

It’s important to find the right place to maximise performance. For me, at university, that was the library - and the quiet floors of it. Now, it’s my office. These places were sanctuaries, then and now, which enabled me to think clearly and be productive. Anywhere this isn’t the case should be abandoned in search of a new setting. I’ve been heartened by the number of students who have started to make staying late at College their place.

Moving on to when:

It’s really quite critical that students know exactly when their exams are - and not just the date, but the time too.

After that they should then work out how long there is until these assessments take place and plan accordingly.

It never ceases to amaze me when I see a student who does not know this when questioned, who doesn’t have it written on a calendar or on a digital planner. 

How exactly can one plan if one doesn’t know when the challenge is coming?

Time is one of the great enemies of revision: there can seem too much to do in not enough time.

But if planning is set up properly, then what could seem an unbearable load can be broken down into manageable chunks. I’d liken this to moving house. When you do not have your moving date, you get things set aside but without, ultimately, desperation. When the date comes, and you know what you are working towards, the work can begin in earnest. Anyone who has experienced the last minute pressures of moving day will often say ‘never again’ at the end of it. I know I did last time my family moved.

Penultimately, knowing what you need to know is pivotal:

Blind spots are another enemy of the reviser. To ensure that these are avoided, the first big step is to ensure that a full and comprehensive syllabus list is in use.

This should be broken down into topic lists and subsidiary areas, as well as directions as to where to find the necessary information to fill in the blanks.

A good idea is to make several of these syllabus lists for each subject, and then RAG (Red-Amber-Green) Rate them on a weekly basis as the exams get closer:

A red dot next to a topic means that is a trouble spot

An amber dot signifies partial knowledge

A green dot symbolises confidence in terms of topic understanding

This approach requires honesty, but has several advantages: not only does it assure students that they are making progress, raising confidence as they go; but it highlights priorities for what they actually need to focus their precious time on - not wasting hours going over content they are already familiar with - instead allocating resources to the topics which require more diligence.

By making this a weekly process, ‘what I need to know’ becomes ‘what I need to know now’ - priorities will change over time, and a student must become adaptable.

Lastly, and perhaps most confusingly for students, comes the how:

This is usually the first question which students pose - how do I revise?

The fact of the matter is that they are looking at this the wrong way. 

The ‘how’ should come after all of the questions which I have touched on above. Only when there is a clear understanding of why the revision is being carried out, along with the particulars of what revision will look like, should there be a consideration of how it is best undertaken.

Once this is established, then attention should turn to methods: which way means that I retain most knowledge? Which way works most efficiently for me? Which way keeps me interested without getting bored?

There are hundreds of different ways to revise. It only takes a quick Google Search to see that. From flashcards to mind maps and mini quizzes to making podcasts, these take on many forms.

The most important thing to consider is to ensure that the revision is active, rather than passive, and that the information is ‘owned’ by the student.

This won’t happen by rereading notes or highlighting them.

This will only happen by condensing notes manually - by doing the ‘hard yards’ themselves - and making them usable on their own terms.

Another major error which can be made by students is to start with past papers - to ‘skip to the end.’ Preparation for exam papers takes time - in terms of time management, the approach to certain questions and satisfying marking criteria. Attempting them too early in a cycle, and then checking answers against mark schemes can result in disappointing results and diminishing confidence. When students set out to complete them at the start of a revision programme, they are simply not ready to do so. This should be saved until the ‘final furlong’ of preparations, when students are refining their approach.

It’s good to start with content, ensuring that they understand it - then ensure they know how to use it.

So, spending time going through a long list of definitions or content knowledge is the first step - then forming plans to answer particular questions is the following move.

From there, these should be attempted as fully as possible, and then under timed conditions.

Of course, holding oneself to account in all of this is important - it requires honesty, hard work and a consistent approach. That is without doubt the main characteristic of a successful student with regards to revision.

It’s also important to know where to look for resources, and help.

Finding a trusted source for this is also important - and that’s why positive and productive relationships matter with staff who can help.

Excitingly, the College will be hosting some ‘Grade Booster’ classes over the Easter Holidays next month in a range of subjects to help students prepare for the exams. These Grade Booster classes will also come with the offer of some follow-up online sessions to check and support learning and to maximise the abilities of students to maximise their grades.

Revision can seem like a unique challenge to many - like something completely new to be approached with trepidation. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. 

With the right mindset, and a considered approach, including the right levels of support, it is a surmountable problem. 

It’s also a vital life skill.


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