Teaching The Secrets of Effective Revision

01 Mar 2019

Half of my life is an act of revision. John Irving

I can’t quite believe that ‘Slow Teaching: Finding calm clarity and impact in the classroom’ came out a year ago this weekend. I have hugely appreciated all the people taking the time to pass on feedback and write reviews. It has been so rewarding to see that it has helped some teachers and had an impact in some classrooms – it makes the late nights of writing hugely worthwhile! This chapter will hopefully be a useful one for this time of year, looking at the slow teaching of revision strategies for our students. The ‘slow lens’ is also applied to the following:

Part I: Silent Slow

1. The Slow Teaching Philosophy

2. The Minimalistic Classroom

3. Streamlined Planning and Teaching

4. An Actor’s Paradise: The Non-Verbal in the Classroom

Part II: Slow Talk

5. Efficient Teacher Talk

6. Questioning: Rediscovering the Potential

7. To Praise or Not to Praise?

Part III: Slow Relationships

8. Refining Relationships

9. Serene and Stoical Behaviour Management

 Part IV: Slow Classroom Strategies

10. The Power of Modelling .

11. Developing Motivated and Reflective Learners

12. Debunking Manic Marking

13. Memory Mysteries.

14. Literacy: Beyond the Quick Fix Solutions

15. Teaching the Secrets of Effective Revision

Part V: Slow Teacher Improvement

16. Reflect and Refine: Growing Passionate Teachers

Part VI: Slow Wellbeing

17. Understanding and Managing Stress

18. Arming Ourselves Against Anxiety

19. Tackling Teacher Insomnia: Sleep Easy

20. Embracing Mindfulness: The Meditating and Mindful Teacher

Part VII: Slow Leadership

21. Value-Driven Leadership

22 Conclusions.

Teaching The Secrets of Effective Revision

It is a statement that never fails to fill teachers with frustration and despair, usually arriving with worrying proximity to an assessment or examination: ‘To be honest Sir, I’m not really too sure how to revise’. The confession is always whispered in a slightly embarrassed way, as if our innocent student knows that, at this stage in their school career, they should be armed with the ability to revise independently.

Then there is the even more infuriating line – ‘I don’t need to revise!’ – the spectacular dose of over-confidence that gives superhuman powers to some students in the face of exams. There may be not a single strand of evidence that would support their claims, but still they blindly march on, absolving themselves of all responsibility for revision.

The Wilderness of Revision

Both responses are maddening because teachers are, of course, very aware that effective revision is vital for students to do to achieve their full potential. We have done everything we possibly can in our teaching: low-stakes testing, regular interleaving of material, extensive student practice and hours of painstaking feedback have all been gainfully employed in our carefully constructed plan for their success. Yet, when it matters most, we become irrelevant and they are utterly on their own, let loose into the wilderness of revision. There may have been endless material that we have laden them with, but what they do, or don’t do, with them is entirely at their discretion.

It is easy for students to take the wrong direction, to stumble across monumental glaciers, to collapse and give up completely in these individual endeavours. In their desire to do well, there are a minefield of different approaches and techniques that students may well attempt. Type ‘revision strategies’ into that close friend of adolescents, Google, and around 700,000 search results come up. There is a maze of conflicting ways to approach using their time for revision, all loudly exclaiming their merit (‘the secret to exam success’ or ‘the best way to revise’) to impressionable young people.

Ideally, our role is to arm students with strategies that will help them to avoid such panic searching and become a more direct, simplified and informed master of revision strategies. Our professional obligation is to sift through this maze of advice so that we can confidently coach, cajole and guide them. To stretch the metaphor to breaking point: we can’t let students disappear into the wilderness of revision without our expert advice.

The Revision Traps

Imagine the following scenario: David has been revising geography for two hours. The bulk of his time has been spent re-reading his notes and highlighting what he feels are essential pieces of information. After two hours he pats himself on the back, yawns and eagerly takes a well-earned Call of Duty PlayStation break. During the next thirty minutes of cathartic violence, does David reflect on the efficiency of what he has done in the previous two hours? Does he question whether or not he has meaningfully learned any information? Does he quiz himself on the knowledge that he believes he has secured? Or, does he fall straight into the obvious trap: because he is now familiar with the information, does he think that he knows it?

We may be being rather harsh on young David here; he is trying, after all! Perhaps it is, in fact, a vital skill we need our students to engage with: reflecting on how well they are revising. Daniel Willingham (2009) argues that ‘students typically know little about how their memories work and, as a result, do not know how to study effectively’.

In reality, even as adults, we often fail to slow down in our busy lives in order to check if we have really processed the range of information we may have come across throughout the day. The growing popularity of online activity means we are absorbing and reading more and more content. Of course, while there are significant positives associated with using the internet, its presence often results in much more skim reading, without us really taking the time to understand and engage with what we have read.

Another facet of human nature is that we have the tendency to take the easier path when trying to learn and study. Peter C. Brown et al (2014) note that ‘when the going is harder and slower it doesn’t feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary’. Guiding students to avoid the following unproductive strategies will help them to make better decisions about how to use their time.


Having pulled off the ambivalent approach in the weeks leading up to an exam, a great number of students will be haunted by feelings of last-minute panic. They will then set off on a binge revision marathon, and the night before the exam they will stay up until all hours to revise. Last-minute, single-minded cramming has some immediate benefits: there will be an immediate ‘knowledge’ high which can then be replicated in the exam. Yet, as we have seen, it will very soon be forgotten. The immediate knowledge comedown happens quickly and leaves us sluggish, like a rapid decrease in blood sugar. My dogged, fear-driven cramming for my biology higher examination did manage to scrape me a pass. Yet, if you asked me now, I would struggle to give a very simple definition of ‘photosynthesis’; this shallow knowledge has completely disappeared.

While there may be immediate benefits of cramming, one of the issues with its practice lies in the intense anxiety and stress it can evoke. Manic cramming before an exam almost guarantees a dreadful night’s sleep, as adrenaline and stress will be flying around the body. Sleep is integral in the formation of enduring memories. We are all familiar with that haze and lack of clarity we feel as a result of a poor night’s sleep. It also heightens our emotional reactions, and stress becomes much more of a forceful enemy without sleep. By not tackling cramming habits we may inadvertently be allowing students to march, zombiestyle and stressed out, into an exam hall.

Re-reading and Highlighting

There is one activity that dominates revision: re-reading. We have all fallen prey to its seductive allure, poring over notes and textbooks in the vain attempt to magically absorb (photosynthesis-like) the information. Its origins are a mystery, yet it is what we have done for generations and it is the advice most frequently offered by teachers: ‘read carefully over your notes’.

Perhaps even more tantalising is to couple this re-reading with the humble highlighter. Come revision time the highlighter is in significant demand, waved around with its full potential exhausted. Many a student will present us with a beautifully highlighted page, then frown in concern when we ask them why they have highlighted information and what the significance of it is. After all, it does feel rather delightful to make something fluorescent, but trying to retain it is much more challenging.

There is a simple strategy to explore the efficacy of a highlighter ourselves: read through a piece of work highlighting key information, turn the page over and complete a self-quiz. What information can we remember? This busy and quick activity feeds the overconfidence we have already explored; highlighting and re-reading are often used by students to reassure themselves that they are adequately prepared.

To return to Make it Stick: Re-reading has three strikes against it. It is time consuming. It doesn’t result in durable learning. And it often involves a kind of unwitting selfdeception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the content (Brown et al, 2014). Explaining to students why re-reading may not be the best strategy, and instead giving them clear direction and training on how they could better use their time, may save them many fruitless hours.

Tackling Revision Procrastination

Even the most conscientious and focused among us are motivated by shortterm and immediate rewards. For adolescents the short-term rewards, as we have already seen, are extensive and remarkably loud. Why grapple with simultaneous equations when the instant gratification of a Snapchat message awaits us? Revision is challenging enough in a utopian environment, such as a quiet home context that is free of distractions. For many young people this ideal is impossible; their home environment is packed full of distractions. As teachers, we can acknowledge these revision blocks with students and do our best to encourage them to take proactive steps to address them.

Here is a nifty ‘top-five tips to avoid procrastination’ to share with students, with the ingenious mnemonic (a tool, as we have seen, of splendid memory power) of ‘STUDY’.

1. Switch your phone off

2. Take breaks

3. Use a list or plan

4. Don’t use the internet

5. Yes or no: test.

The phone and the internet are the most obvious procrastination devils (I know they haunted me while writing this book!) Young people need guidance to avoid these distractions, with even the sight of a phone reducing a person’s ability to focus. The best approach is to remove both: the phone and internet need to be left in a different room.

The ability to manage themselves and their time (self-efficacy) is another key point to explore with students; if they believe they can focus and concentrate on the task ahead, they will have more chance of persevering. Encouraging students to avoid music and work in quiet focus will help them to use their time well and efficiently.

To do this, we can shatter the myth of multi-tasking, explaining to them that they will be more successful if they focus on exploring one thing at a time. A colleague of mine uses the example of attempting to drive while speaking on a mobile phone to demonstrate how this shatters focus and concentration (hence it being extremely hazardous and illegal!) The same is true with revision and multi-tasking: it switches the brain’s attentional system and removes focus. Dave Crenshaw (2008) exposes this in The Myth of Multitasking, arguing that multi-tasking is impossible and should be renamed ‘switch-tasking’.

Factoring in study breaks to their revision schedules will assist our students to avoid the lure of procrastination. The Pomodoro Technique (2009) is another useful strategy to coach young people on how to manage their time. This involves using a timer to ensure that they work steadily for fifty-five minutes, then allow themselves time out for a five-minute break to do as they please. This ensures focus for the majority of the hour and avoids switching between revision and other tasks. It also allows students to take time to check in on the world that is calling for them so persuasively, before returning to the singleminded focus required of revision.

Tackling Learning Styles

A common revision practice is for young people to cater to what has been defined by their ‘learning style’. Learning styles offer a claim about how we best learn; be it visual, audio, kinaesthetic or a whole host of other labels. The idea is that we learn best when the mode of presentation matches the style in which we learn. Students’ learning styles are conventionally identified through a selfquestionnaire (perhaps where the first warning signs may appear).

Issues with learning styles are, again, clear. Graham Nuthall (2007) argues that there has been no real evidence presented to date to prove the validity of learning styles. His apt summary is that they ‘are about motivation and management, they are not about learning’. In The Sutton Trust’s report ‘What makes great teaching?’ (2014) the authors also identified that learning styles have no impact on learner achievement. There has been little meaningful research that can justify a positive impact they have on young people.

More importantly, the message delivered as a result of learning styles can be hugely limiting and destructive for students. It feeds a defeatist narrative: I am not that kind of learner, therefore I will be no good at this. The same could perhaps be argued of any case of a child being labelled (be it high ability, lower ability), it means that they identify this as part of their capacity to learn. For the student revising, it means the temptation is to avoid challenging thinking, and do only what they feel fits with their learning style. If they have been identified as a ‘visual learners’, they will then seek to hide and take comfort in the sanctuary of ‘visual learning’.

So, how do we encourage students to see beyond the myths they might have been fed about learning in the past? Our repeated motto should be that revision should be effortful, active and sustained. As far back as 1890, William James (2017) argued that ‘a curious peculiarity of our memory is that things are impressed better by active than by passive repetition’. Tapping into strategies that will maximise this ‘curious peculiarity’ will help our students to confidently prepare for their examinations.

The Revision Tool Kit Parental Support

The more we can engage and unite with parents in our mission to scaffold students’ revision, the more chance they will be supported effectively at home. This requires informing them early on about the examinations their child will face, and the best mechanisms they can use to revise for our subject. Often, parents can feel isolated from the stress their teenagers might be going through. By proactively engaging with them, they will begin to feel like a valued part of the process. Sharing research on how their child should go about revising and providing practical tips can also ensure that they join the mission to help their children use their time more effectively.


The first thing we need to do is assist students in the process of developing a practical and useful revision timetable. There are a number of traps students fall into when deciding what to revise. They may invest substantially more time in their favourite subjects; they may revise what they perceive themselves as being ‘good at’; or, they may completely neglect their stronger subjects. What we can do to help is encourage them to plan out their revision so as to ensure that there is a comprehensive coverage of all their subjects.

Simplifying the process for them and making it realistic will help alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety. A rigid or demanding timetable could have the impact of putting students off doing any work, while the converse will mean that they don’t do enough! First, they need to consider how long they have before the exams and the amount of units they need to cover. This could generate a tick list of key course elements that need to be revised, which can be checked off when they are covered. Then they should plan for regular and active concentrated shots of revision, not sitting revising for hours at a time.

To enable this to happen we must ensure they start this process early in the year. In this plan, it is important that students allow for study breaks which are a vital part of the process. Fresh air and a short walk can do wonders for being able to return and focus. The key thing to guide on is perspective: students need to be reminded that this is an important part of their life and some sacrifices are required.


We have clarified that the skimming of class notes is not going to assist in securing knowledge. Instead, what will be more useful in retaining knowledge is going through the process of self-testing. This can be achieved by following the following strategies.

Concept mapping: Students should put away all their notes and instead make a concept note, highlighting all of the information they have on a particular topic. They may feel they have all the knowledge they need, but this approach forces them to recall and process the material that they have gone through. This process is circular, as they can return to their notes and check what they might have missed, thus filling in the gaps in their knowledge. The construction of a mind map is also helpful, although for it to be useful it needs to live up to its name and become a literal map of the mind’s eye, with the information learned and absorbed completely. This might require practice and repeating the mind map again in different ways. Students completing their own knowledge organisers (the vital information they need to know in a particular unit of work) is also a helpful way to use their time, particularly if they can then compare it with the original organiser that they may have from the start of the unit.

Spaced testing: Having invested time in reading over material and seeking to understand it, the immediacy of a self-written test or the input of someone else testing on content can be very help. Even better, however, is to wait an hour, revise something else, then come back and complete a test on the previous work. This will ensure that students must think hard to recall the information; a true test if they can replicate it in exam conditions. Then they can then return to reflect on areas they haven’t yet mastered.

Test exam questions: The most obvious technique to encourage students to use when revising is to complete an exam-style question. To mirror the conditions completely, this should be done in the atmosphere that reflects an exam: in silence and with the amount of time they will have in the exam. To generate real ‘test-wiseness’, trying to make sure they complete a practice question on the range of topics that might come up in the exam will help them feel more authentically and justifiably confident.

What will make this even more helpful is if they receive feedback on it, so as to guide them on what they need to do more of. If students can be provided with a bank of exemplar answers to compare their own responses to, this will help them to self-assess and develop a further understanding of their own knowledge. Providing students with different examples and asking them to compare and contrast them for efficacy can also help in securing knowledge.

An important element of revision is establishing an open dialogue with students, and encouraging them to send us examples of questions they have completed, or to seek us out for further dialogue. Clearly, at times, this may not be possible; in this case, there are a wealth of online alternatives that can support revision for our subjects.


Flashcards can be a splendid means for students to engage with content and condense information down to cues. The process of making the flashcards themselves is a useful practice: involving the dilution of key notes and ideas onto card. This requires the active recall of information, as you seek to process concepts and information you have learned in your own words and in a condensed fashion.

Flashcards can also be used in different environments and places, allowing them to be a mobile form of revision that requires self-reflection. For them to be effective they need to involve testing, using them to test their own knowledge or have someone help them. The art of writing flashcards by hand will also help to reject the call of internet and other electronic devices, meaning focus and concentration are essential! Sticky notes can be an even more simplified version of flashcards; placing them at a visual point in their own homes means they will be frequently referred to and help to ensure retention.


Repeating information is one of the simplest ways of securing it in our minds. It is effortful and avoids the process of merely reading something over. For repetition to work, however, it needs to go beyond the mechanical and engage with meaning: why is it that the repeated information is true or valid? By encouraging students to actively repeat material, we also encourage them to overlearn and go beyond mastering a topic. They will often underestimate how quickly they will forget a concept or an idea; by repeating it and overlearning it, we can reduce the likelihood of this happening.

The spaced repetition of a test is an excellent means to secure retention, and will help to create stronger memories. Testing after information has been initially learned can check understanding; this should be followed by the same test the next day, then the same test a week later. Going through this repetition will increase the speed at which students can recall information, meaning that they can replicate it quickly in exam situations.

Paired Revision

The sight of our students heading off to revise together can evoke dread: just how much work are they really going to get done? Yet their unity may in fact be a blessing in disguise, for the act of teaching each other can be a very useful revision tool. To return to our philosophical chum Seneca (2003): ‘while we teach, we learn’. It is, of course, true in our command of our own subjects: how much more informed and confident are we about our own subjects after having taught them for a number of years? Scientists have dubbed this ‘The protégé effect’ (2009) – the positive impact that occurs when students explain and teach each other elements of their revision. It is a perfect way to enable active testing, with students testing each other and having immediate access to the correct answer. All this helps revision to be motivational and, dare I say it, introduces an element of fun for young people. Encouraging them to break up long days of revision by working with someone else can be very helpful.

Eat and Sleep Well

Revision for many students is coupled with every sugary treat you can imagine; a mountainous supply that is deemed essential to get them through the process of revising. The problem with this is clear: sugary slumps and caffeine-induced lows result in decreased concentration and less retention of knowledge. While it will not win us any popularity contests, we can encourage students to balance their diet and get enough sleep. We shall arm ourselves with some sleep wisdom in Chapter 19.

The next student who utters ‘I don’t know how to revise’ may well want to find themselves a comfortable chair, as we launch into our widespread, researchinformed repertoire of effective revision strategies. By sharing our guidance with them and simplifying the process, we are setting them up for some successful and impactful revision and improved results.

Now that we have done everything in our power to slowly provide our students with the very best opportunities as learners, it is about time we put our own lives under the slow microscope. What better place to start than our relationship with our profession, and our ability to continue to grow and develop as teachers.

Slow Questions

1. Are your students suffering from a lack of clarity about how to revise?

2. Are you tackling the symptoms of over-confident students?

3. Are your students clear on the dangers of cramming?

4. What are the procrastination avoidance tips you can arm your students with?

5. Can you help your students to construct a revision timetable?

6. What self-testing techniques do you want students to employ in their revision?


Thank you for reading.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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