GCSE exams – Revision is skilled work, not just a process

close-up on someone pulling dental floss out of a container

Tracey Leese questions whether the time might have come to examine our assumptions around revision and re-assess its place in the learning process…

Tracey Leese
by Tracey Leese
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Whenever we recap topics in lessons, there will always be at least one student who inevitably interjects with the stock phrase “Miss, we’ve done this before…”

My usual response, with typical teacher’s wit, is “That’s why it’s called revision – otherwise, it would just be called vision.

My students have yet to find this remotely amusing, but the point stands. You can’t revise something unless you know it first. But as I sit here reflecting on our first examination-based GCSE results in three years, it’s become clear to me that revision isn’t the determining factor in a students’ success.

Dental flossing

I was always rubbish at revising. At 16, I had no awareness of how I worked best, and always struggled when sitting alone in silence with my class notes, because that’s what I thought revision was. I now know this to be the kind environment that does nothing for my efficacy levels, so it’s hardly surprising that I ended up learning Spice Girls lyrics when I should have been memorising chemical symbols.

I’d go as far to say that revision is like dental flossing. People say they do it, but often don’t – or at least not properly.

Have you ever taught a student who achieved astounding academic results and attributed their success predominately to revision? Or known students who had supply teachers all year, only to make up the lost ground by being prolific revisers?

A pedagogical approach that primarily emphases revision is one that’s fundamentally flawed, because of how much misconception there is among students around what actually constitutes meaningful revision. Over the years I’ve lost count of how often a conscientious (and almost always female) student will present me with a beautifully highlighted lever-arch dossier of notes, only to find that they haven’t actually retained any of the details they’ve so dutifully annotated.

They have, however, sacrificed their free time and wellbeing in order to convince themselves that they’ve revised – as though racking up a full time-sheet will automatically result in a grade 9.

Heavy lifting

Done well, revision can do much of the heavy lifting of knowledge acquisition. Done badly, it can be detrimental to student wellbeing, and allow misconceptions to take root unchallenged.

In my experience, students almost always lean towards the latter. Granted, revision can play a key role in students developing the independence and self-regulation they’ll need to succeed at KS5 and beyond. Yet it’s an ambitious curriculum and quality first teaching that will make the biggest impact on students’ grades and life chances, and no amount of revision can compensate if either are lacking.

Similarly, the extent of students’ vocabulary, cultural capital and support networks will impact far more upon their eventual attainment than their ability to revise. Like so many skills, meaningful revision has to be explicitly taught, re-taught, modelled and resourced.

Making connections

How much time do schools dedicate to the actual teaching of revision? Many will facilitate externally- run workshops – of the sort where students learn how to memorise key facts about a set topic – but skilled and systematic revision involves so much more than just remembering.

It’s prioritising, translating and making connections, all whilst self-evaluating. It requires motivation, aspiration and self-discipline; skills that students don’t innately possess. Revision is skilled work that requires a degree of metacognition and self-awareness. It’s a creation of teaching and teachers, rather than learning and learners.

Ultimately, we need to invest more in, and assume less about revision, the demands of which can end up feeling like a separate micro-curriculum altogether. Like so many seemingly accepted pillars within education, it might be time to review, reassess, or at the very least rethink the impact that revision has on our students.

Tracey Leese (@MrsqueenLeese) is an assistant headteacher at St Thomas More Catholic Academy in Longton, an advocate for women in leadership and co-author, with Christopher Barker, of Teach Like a Queen (Routledge, £16.99)

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