Wednesday 24 April 2013

Making revision work

Over the years I have run numerous revision sessions to GCSE groups.  I have run Easter revision sessions, after-school revision sessions, online Twitter revision hours and one to one revision intervention groups.  I have taught students the benefits of revision and the process of how it happens through leading our Year 9 Learning to Learn course.  I have led revision assemblies for all Year 10's and 11's.  I have even worked with staff to develop effective revision techniques that tie in with key ideas on how the brain works and stores information.  I would be confident in saying that I believe I can run an effective revision programme that benefits students.  However, this year I have really looked at my practice and refined (and pruned) the way that I approach teaching in general.  This has allowed me to focus on what is essential in great teaching and revision is no different.  As I approached the critical 'exam prep' season, I was very concious that I wanted to do away with all of the gimmicky 'activities' that probably take twice as much time to set up but have half the impact than other simpler ideas.  I wanted to ensure that what I did had the key elements of effective learning.  Any revision session I chose to construct had to allow me the opportunity to question students, check their understanding, provide feedback and feedforward, allow them a chance to act upon any comments, make improvements to their work, practice exam technique, allow the opportunity to model good exam structure, work collaboratively whilst revising with others and force students to make an action plan of areas in their knowledge that needed addressing.

Focusing on these key elements led me to reading a number of interesting posts.  Each post highlighted a different key aspect which when combined, would allow me to create a structure to my revision session that I believed would help students.  The first of these posts came from Alex Quigly (see here) and focused on 'testing for learning' and using tests in revision which ultimately have a positive impact on learning.  The use of tests or exam drills must be teamed up with repetition and skilled feedback for students.  As Alex says, 'the act of retrieving information for a test is proven to recall more than simply restudying information'.  Using exam questions with students can be tedious, but is bread and butter in terms of preparing them for the real thing.

The second post I read was also from Alex and talked about the evidence behind revision techniques and helped me select the approach that I was going to use with my class.  The post which is an excellent read can be found here and is well worth taking a look at.  It really helped me filter out activities that had little or no impact and allowed me to focus my attention on using what works.

The next post wasn't based at all on revision but instead on effective use of feedback and how to 'close the gap'.  It is written by Tom Sherrington here and summarises his visit to Saffron Walden Community High School and the approach to feedback policies that they use.  The article got my mind thinking about how effectively I provide students with feedback and how I could implement it (especially the marking key) into my revision sessions.

The next post was from Annie Murphy Paul and can be found here.  In her article she summarises the perils of re-reading work as a revision strategy, using the work of Daniel T. Willingham as the basis of her post.  It is a very thought provoking piece of writing and one which reaffirmed my own beliefs on the subject.

The penultimate post was a one that I had used last year and inspired my to design a SOLO stations lesson.  It is written by @DVPLearning and explains an observed revision lesson where the teacher used a method called 'Teach, Do, Review'.  The full article can be found here but explains how the teacher split the class into three groups based on their competency in that particular topic, and then gave each group a different revision activity.  The method he talked about resonated with me and allowed me to provide a differentiated revision lesson that allowed students to move between tasks in order to progress or recap a topic.

The last post was tweeted out by Darren Mead and talked about a PEEL task called a 'Five out of three' activity.  A link to it can be found here.  The activity encompassed so much of the core lesson essentials (questioning, feedback, time to act upon feedback, checking content knowledge....) and was one I would definitely use in my revision programme. 

So, with all of these combined ideas, I created a 'Teach, Do, Review' lesson.  The session is designed to draw upon the key points from the blogs above and ensure that the revision that takes place is both productive and meaningful.

Teach, Do, Review (with a five out of three starting point).

It is probably important to point out at the start that this lesson was a 2 hour double theory lesson.  This allowed me to run the full process.

The starting point of the process involved me ascertaining the level of subject knowledge that student already had for my chosen topic area.  It is important to find out what students already know and what areas still need refining.  Wasting time covering a topic that students are already competent in is time not spent covering a topic that they are not.  With time a very precious thing in the exam prep period, it is important I use it efficiently.  Using Alex's advice in his post on using tests to retrieve information, I decided to use the 'Five out of three' PEEL task as the basis for this.

As students arrived I grouped them into paired teams based on their previous assessment levels.  Similar ability students based on data would therefore work together and allow me the chance to tailor my feedback to their needs.  The process of the session would be extremely simple.  Students would receive six exam questions taken from the unit topic we were covering (physiology in this case).  Students were able to choose any question to tackle first, therefore allowing them to prioritise them and create their own order.  Students worked with their partner to answer the questions one at a time.  They would not be able to use any resources (text books, note books...) at all.  Everything had to be as a result from memory retrieval.  When they had answered a question, they would hand it in for marking/feedback.

Each question varied in marks (from 1 mark all the way to 4 marks).  They are low enough for the lesson to keep pace, selected carefully enough for me to check understanding (hinge questions if you may), varied enough to cover all aspects of the content and brief enough to allow me to mark them quickly.  As the questions are marked, they receive a specific score out of three, irrespective of how many marks were on offer.  The scores were as follow:

  • 1/3 = Answer was poorly answered
  • 2/3 = Answer is fine but lacks detail, terminology, definitions, examples...
  • 3/3 = Answer is as expected in the exam mark scheme.  It would receive full marks in the actual exam
  • 4/3 = The answer is above and beyond what is expected.  
  • 5/3 = The best answer in the class for that particular question

The use of the 4 and 5 out of 3 elements allows my more able students to stretch and demonstrate their content knowledge.  As I allocated a score, I also added an annotation taken from my marking/feedback key inspired by Tom Sherrington's 'Close the gap' post.  This would allow students who received low scores to know what needed improving, without giving away the answer (it forces them to reflect, think harder, question each other....).

Students scores were then placed on a score table on the board which provided an element of safe competition.  This aspect worked extremely effectively with my students.  It also gave them feedback based on the outcome/their scores (knowledge of results).  Students could then decide, if their score was low, to come and collect their marked answer and improve it using the marking key feedback (knowledge of performance).  They could then resubmit it for marking again and hopefully improve their score.

This process lasted approximately 45 minutes of the first lesson.  The nature of the task, and the instant marking, allowed me to quickly identify weak areas of content with students that I would therefore need to address in the future.  Through the marking/feedback key and scoring, it also helped students improve their subject knowledge.  The depth of questioning between partners was excellent as they tried to remember the answers.  It only took one key word or memory trigger for the answer to come flooding back.  I then addressed a few exam question weak points and modelled on the board, how to structure this type of short answer question in the future.  The process of modelling the answer with the students helps develop and form good exam technique and habits.

I then asked students to categories themselves, based on their confidence in answering those questions, into three groups.  The students who felt that they had clear gaps in their knowledge of this topic area would work with me in the 'Teach' group.  I would spend time with them going over the key content and explaining it again.  I would be there to answer any questions and provide examples to help improve their understanding.  Based on the assessment from the 'Five out of three' task, I could cover any obvious weak areas.  At any point, if a students felt that they had covered the areas they were most concerned about, they could leave the 'Teach' group and move on.

The second group was the 'Do' group.  This group felt confident in the topic area but would benefit from covering a few areas again independently.  Their tasks were based on Alex Quigley's post and included the use of concept maps, along with gathering key definitions and terminology they were missing.  The importance of making links within a topic were also important and students were encouraged to find connections/relationships with the information.

The last group was the 'Review' group.  This group would review their content knowledge by answering exam questions (based on the post here) in an effort to demonstrate their understanding and thinking.  They would have to leave an equal gap under their answers to allow them to redraft if needed.  Once they had finished the questions they had them critiqued by a peer (already established in my class as explained here) and annotated using our marking/feedback key.  Students would then act on this feedback instantly and 'close the gap'.  The redrafted answers would then be critiqued again until their content knowledge was secure and demonstrated in their answer.

The process has been an enormous success and has been used in our departments Year 11 exam preparation.  The combination of the various posts detailed above, as well as listening to warnings on what not to do, have allowed us to combine and create a revision procedure that has made the process of revision effective and beneficial.


  1. A very good blog post. Made me reflect.

  2. A very good resource! I have adapted it for French AS revisions. Thanks a lot.

  3. Thanks so much for this. As a NQT with my first certificate class preparing for prelims, I've been trying to think of ways to help them revise in a structured and differentiated way. This has given me a lot of food for thought, and I look forward to trying out some of the ideas in my history class!

  4. Gonna use this for AS Sociology revision after Easter. A practical differentiated revision sessions which goes beyond 're-teaching' and independent study which can be unrewarding. Thank you for the inspiration.