20 March 2023

The Monday Briefing: Goin' Back

The Monday Briefing: Goin Back

A question I’m often asked by students around this time of year is: ‘how should I revise?’

The answer to this query is never an easy one, as students will favour a variety of different methods, all aimed towards the goal of retaining information. All that one can do is to set out the basic guidelines around what works and what doesn’t. Not just from my perspective, but what all of the research tells us. I’ll also point out the most common errors that students make in their approach.

At the root of it all is the need for hard work, rigour and proactivity.

Before a student even commences the task at hand, they should ensure the following:

-That the will is there (they know why they are revising, and are keen to do well)

-That they are well rested, with a regular routine of at least seven hours’ sleep

-That they eat nutritiously and exercise well

-That the environment in which they are about to study is calm, quiet and orderly - in fact, it should mimic the conditions in which they are going to sit the exam as far as possible. (So no phones, then, and no music either. If they will be writing their exams, then write. If they are using a laptop, use a laptop. If they have extra time, adjust the time allowed)

Once this situation has been fully effected, then it is time to put into practice the following:

Little and often

Imagine that you have a dentist appointment in 4 months.

Would you brush your teeth for 8 hours continuously before going to the dentist?

Or would you brush your teeth for two minutes every day and night for the 120 days before the appointment?

It shouldn’t take long to make the correct judgement here - and the analogy follows the stark comparison between cramming and interleaved learning. One of these approaches increases anxiety, whilst the other will relieve it - and, really, this is what revision is about at the heart of it: being able to perform well on the day of the exam without debilitating anxiety.

This is where it is important to start with the creation of a revision timetable (a good weekly example is shown below - taken from Rawlins Academy).  Quite rightly according to American entrepreneur Jim Rohn: “Either you run the day or the day runs you.”

Without a plan, you do what’s passive and easy – not what brings real progress. Without a plan, you’re left with hope.

You hope you’ll find a way to make progress. Hope is a terrible strategy when you have deadlines. If you really want to achieve anything worthwhile, you will make plans. The bitter truth is without an action plan, or working system, you will accomplish little in life and career.

A plan helps you commit yourself fully to everything you want to do.

This document, however, will only work if:

-Timeslots within each day are assigned appropriately, incorporating time for work, rest and play.

-Specific areas are identified which need to be addressed. (More on this later in RAG rating)

-Students hold themselves to the schedule strictly.

-Students reward themselves when they do what they have set out to do.

Now that the outline of the plan is made, time to get down to the hard work. In all of my years of teaching, I’ve yet to find a better guideline for outlining revision than ‘The Hectic Teacher’. This excellent approach can be found below. The examples I give which then follow will be History-based, but can be adapted for any subject.

RAG Rating - what it is and why should it always be the first step?

Socrates: “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”

RAG Rating is a sophisticated approach to problems, which allows you to see how far along you are in the development of finding a solution. I use it periodically when approaching an analysis of the College priorities within our overall development plan. It requires honesty - in this case, for the student to be frank with themselves in determining exactly what they know, what they have doubts over, and what remains completely elusive to them. Used widely in industry, definitions of Red - Amber - Green ratings can be found below:

In the case of the student, this requires first a specification list - a comprehensive list of topics and areas they will be tested on. They then should honestly appraise exactly how they feel about each. When this has been correctly carried out, what one has created is a powerful priority list. Now, revision truly has purpose. Without such a first step, it is often misdirected, and, at worst, completely misdirected.

Active, not passive revision

After having created the priority list, it’s time to tackle it. This also has to be done with the right approach.

It’s very easy to sit and glance over a textbook, watch revision videos or highlight passage after passage - but ask yourself:

Am I actually learning, is it sticking, or am I just giving the impression to others that my revision is effective merely by looking busy?

It is far more effective to tackle the task at hand actively as opposed to passively. Here is one effective suggestion on doing that:

Go through all of your notes, textbooks and powerpoints you have for each subject. For each one, then make a list of questions. A sample from my Year 12 Russian History class can be seen below:

Review this by following the Brain-Book-Buddy-Boss method, answering in one colour (Brain) the answers you get correctly with no assistance, in another (Book) those you need to return to the textbook or your notes for, in another (Buddy) the answers which are elusive until your classmates give them to you, and then lastly, another colour (Boss) for those which your teacher has to give you.

It takes a lot of time to make the question list, but you only have to do it once. You could distribute topics amongst your friends, then come together to answer them. This has always been the best way I’ve found to review past information.

Once the gaps have been found and addressed, it’s time to organise

Following this comprehensive approach towards course content, and just how much of it one remembers, to embed the knowledge for easier retrieval, the best way is then to make some kind of trigger sheet or revision aid. I’ve always found that A3 sheets of paper work best for this. They give space to draw diagrams which can include a great deal of information, whilst not overwhelming a student. Having completed all of the questions in the Brain-Book-Buddy-Boss task - I made over 400 of them for my students in Russian History, it is prudent to organise them into the four areas which will be assessed in the exam - Leadership-Opposition-Economic-Social. Below is a good example of how to do this for one aspect of the course - industrial progress, and the impact on workers (taken from Heathen History)

Ready or not, here I come…

At this point, and only at this point is one ready for past exam paper questions.

Many a student makes the error of jumping straight into a full past paper to kick off their revision, performing poorly, and then experiencing an alarming decline in their confidence. It is the equivalent of beginning marathon training twelve weeks or so before the race, and in the first training session, setting out for a 42km run, just to see how one gets on.

Not only is the body unprepared for such a challenge, the mind is not either. 

It makes far more sense to build gradually, mastering topics before approaching the whole task. Desmond Tutu once wisely said that “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” What he meant by this is that everything in life that seems daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible can be accomplished gradually by taking on just a little at a time. Setting out to conquer something as difficult as a two year course in such an unprepared manner will set you back right from the start.

Only when good and ready can one test that readiness through past papers. It is around this time in the year that this should now be coming to fruition.

Who do I turn to in times of doubt?

It’s highly unlikely that students will score 100% in these past papers. There will always be potential areas for improvement.

And who best to ask when these are identified? 

Teachers, of course.

One of the most frustrating phenomena I have experienced at this time in every year is what I’ll describe as the ‘voluntarily absentee student’. When exam fever tends to set in, these students quickly settle on the judgement that they would be best off revising ‘at home’ as they work better there. This self-detrimental approach can actually deprive them of between 1-2 grades in the final exam.

Imagine the scenario:

A student scores 62% (Grade B) in a past paper they have tried at home after using the mark scheme, wrongly, to grade their work. They were far too generous and actually only scored 54% (Grade C). But they feel vindicated in their approach, and so will carry on with it, having not bothered to check with their subject teacher the level of accuracy. They’ve perhaps even said to themselves that ‘a Grade B is good enough for me’, so they will relax their approach, focusing on the 62% (actually 54%) that they know, and not the 38% (really 46%) that they don’t.

The right approach is to continue the regular dialogue with the teachers who have been guiding them so far. Being in school is the best way to do this. It offers the chance for prompt and accurate answers, which serve to reassure students, who have confidence in tact. Everyone will have times of doubt and anxiety in the run up to exams. The critical consideration should always be: how do I alleviate that stress?

And how one alleviates stress best is in having a plan to tackle the problem one is faced with. Above is such a plan. In no way is it easy. It is time consuming, and takes dedication to work, but I’ll close with a quote which illustrates this well from the legendary Olympian Usain Bolt:

‘I trained 4 years to run 9 seconds and people give up when they don't see results in 2 months.’

Things to keep in mind, from a student’s point of view:

-Trust the system (because it works). 

-Dedicate yourself to it. 

-Trust your coaches/teachers. 

-Be honest with yourself.

-Have faith that success will come.

-Put in the hard work to ensure that it happens.

-End it all with no regrets.

-Learn from the process - you’ll be needing it for the next challenge, be that A Levels, University exams, or further professional qualifications.

To steal a final quote, coined by Jeremy Hunt this week, but originating from American Football coach Vince Lombardi: ‘The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.’

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