I have a particular image in my head when I think about revision. It’s the view out of my bedroom window in my old family home in Bath. The sky is blue, there’s glorious sunshine bouncing off the rooftops and I am stuck at my desk with exercise books, textbooks, folders and files, scattered around me. And I just can’t seem to concentrate. Not when the sky is such a deep shade of blue and the sun is glinting so brightly and I am in a dimly lit, stuffy old room. That image comes from my memory of revising from 30 years ago when I was studying for my GCSEs.

I remember being told to revise but I don’t remember being taught how to revise

When I think back to my time in school, I remember being told to revise but I don’t remember being taught how to revise. The plain fact of the matter is, I was never taught to revise and in the 30 years which have followed, I don’t think the teaching of revision has moved on from my experiences. Revision, particularly for Year 11 and Year 13 students, is a key aspect of learning and for our 16 – 18-year-olds is part of their daily dialogue in many schools and homes from now until the end of June. But I suspect very few know how to revise effectively. And effective revision is what’s important.

If you find yourself struggling to support your child through their revision, having told them for the umpteenth time to knuckle down and revise. If you’ve bought yet another pack of highlighter pens so they can continue to plaster their exercise books in dayglow green and orange; if you’ve helped them plan yet another revision timetable because they’ve not managed to stick to the last eight iterations and if you are trying to manage stress levels for all members of the family as the exam deadline looms then all is not lost.

For us parents, helping our sons and daughter to revise, rather than feeling helpless, is within our grasp.

Huge advances have been made in our understanding of how we learn from the psychological sciences, principally, cognitive science. The work is evidenced based and peer scrutinised. In other words, the findings are valid and what has been discovered works. Education has come to these findings relatively recently and the research is beginning to have a profound effect on how teachers teach and learners learn. For us parents, helping our sons and daughter to revise, rather than feeling helpless, is within our grasp.

Revision and how to do it

What I am sharing with you below, is my watered-down version of materials which come from a group called the Learning Scientists. They have produced some excellent materials for students, teachers and parents about the science of learning. They have a website here and plenty of free materials which you can download here. I am going to be using terms like “spaced practice”, “retrieval practice”, “interleaving”, “dual coding” and other technical phrases all of which I have borrowed from the Learning Scientists.

Spaced Practice and Interleaving focus on when to revise whilst Retrieval Practice, Elaboration, Concrete Examples and Dual Coding focus on how to revise. The resources can be used by you and your children and are not restricted for use as revision materials. Rather they are highly effective study strategies for all ages.

Spaced Practice

(Space out your study over time)

Spaced practice means giving yourself time to prepare for a test or an exam. You should learn something (perhaps using Dual Coding), have a break and then go back to it sometime more than once to check how much of topic you can remember.

Retrieval Practice

(Practise bringing information back into your mind)

Close your exercise books and write or sketch what you know about something. After each try, go back and look at your book or textbook and see how much you remember and then try again.

Elaboration

(Explain and describe ideas to yourself and others)

Ask yourself questions as you learn. Can you repeat back what the teacher just said and add a bit more to it. This is what you need to do when you are invited by your teacher to talk in class to others about what you are learning.

Interleaving

(Switch between ideas while you study)

You study one topic for 10 minutes, then another for 10 minutes and a third for 10 minutes. Then you go back to study them again, you study them in a different order, maybe the second topic first etc. It will seem a little odd but it makes your learning stronger. It also helps you see connections between the topics you are studying.

Concrete Examples

(Use specific examples to understand abstract ideas)

Use examples to help you understand ideas. If you look at lots of examples, from your teacher, or from your friends, you will find the idea easier to understand.

Dual Coding

(Putting words and pictures together)

Next time you study something new, try using drawings and diagrams. You are aiming to combine pictures and diagrams with the written explanations.

It’s like being back at school

If you are still reading the blog at this point then you’ve done very well to stick through all of the content or you’ve skipped to the end to see how long it is. Either way, it’s an onerous task being the parent of a revising child. Learning is messy and complicated and any help we can get with the process is most welcome. The work of the Learning Scientists is not simply about revision, rather they are promoting good study habits that will stay with students throughout their lives. The more you can support your children in developing these habits, the better they will become at studying and performing in exams and tests.

However, if you are bemused by what’s in this blog or simply don’t have the time to go through every aspect of the Learning Scientists work but want to know what would make the biggest difference to your child’s revision, then here’s my equivalent of the Learning Scientists York Notes for the busy parent:

What would make the biggest difference to a child’s revision?

1. Help your son/daughter plan out a spaced practice revision schedule and stick to it!

2. Encourage your son/daughter to retrieve what they learned during the school day.

3. Encourage your son/daughter to revisit old topics

4. Make sure your son/daughter gets enough sleep!


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