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GCSE Revision – 6 ways of making it more manageable for students

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Claire Gadsby explains how incorporating bite-size pointers into successive lessons over a term or year can gift students with some powerful revision skills…

Claire Gadsby
by Claire Gadsby
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Whilst effective revision has been shown to make a difference of up to 1.5 grades to final exam results, it’s fair to say that it suffers from an image problem, with the average teenager typically less than enthused by the prospect.

However, even the busiest of teachers can help to break down the challenge of revision by tackling it using short, interactive strategies in the classroom, enabling memory skills to be developed progressively. Crucially, this ‘drip-feed’ approach means that information is being revisited systematically, thus avoiding the common problem of students not fully engaging with revision until it’s too late.

The incremental nature of this type of revision draws on key research by Professor Robert Bjork, who found that ‘desirable difficulties’ in learning can actually strengthen memory. Specifically, he recommends:

  • Spaced practice
  • Interleaving
  • Testing (generally via regular, low stakes quizzing)
  • Varied revision methods
  • Generation (recall) rather than reading

Stage 1 – Motivate and activate your students

When it comes to revision, there’s obviously some work to do in terms of boosting pupil morale and motivation. I recommend sharing with them the following statistic – that by the age of 16, pupils will have spent approximately 10,500 hours or 2,100 days at school. Revision is the penultimate hurdle; that one final push to help them over the finish line of the exams. It can be reassuring for students to consider that, in a very real sense, the hardest work is already done.

Itemise and incentivise the process of revision by introducing a scoring system, whereby completion of distinct revision tasks earns students a set number of points. For example, use of a mind map might earn them 5 points, and the completion of a past paper 10 points.

Arrange the class into teams, set up a ‘revision league table’ and encourage the teams to compete to see who can place top of the league. Ask them to regularly update their scores and share their revision materials to sustain the momentum.

Stage 2 – Quick revision activities during lessons

One of the key problems with revision is the sheer scale of the task, and the extent to which it can feel overwhelming for many students. The approaches suggested below are designed to break revision down into manageable chunks, and can be quickly and easily incorporated into lessons.

Whilst subject teachers will often be rightly mindful of the pressure on them to cover the full extent of the curriculum, it can be reassuring to see students retaining, and indeed finessing their knowledge in the short to medium term, rather than setting aside a chunk of time for revision practice at the end of the course.

In my opinion, spreading this out across the term or year is well worth spending the five minutes of class time here and there that it will require – because that’s roughly the amount of time these strategies should take to complete.

1. The Threshold Challenge

This literally involves ‘going over’ prior learning. At the start of the lesson, place a piece of paper in the classroom doorway, on which is displayed some form of prior learning. Examples might include:

  • A key term or ‘trigger word’
  • An anagram of a keyword or phrase
  • An image
  • A question

When pupils step over, and potentially read aloud this ‘threshold prompt’, challenge them to go straight to their seat and spend 3 minutes recalling as much as they can about it. This could be done individually, or potentially in pairs using the ‘word tennis’ (my turn, your turn) approach.

At the end of the lesson, repeat the process as pupils leave the classroom – only this time, turn the paper over so that you’re challenging pupils to recall, rather than simply read the prompt. This activity can be an effective way of bookending a lesson with revisiting prior learning in the first 3 and final 2 minutes of the period, leaving the bulk of the lesson time free for them to learn something new.

2. Beat your Personal Best

A simple, yet powerful strategy that’s designed to improve pupils’ stamina and indicate to them where they’re making progress. Provide students with a blank piece of paper and a randomly chosen heading that describes a revision topic. Set a timer for 60 seconds, and then challenge them to see how many ideas and how much detail they can remember about the topic in that time.

After their time runs out, ask the students to record their score and then repeat the activity later in the same lesson or later that week. This time, challenge them to beat their previous score.

3. Bring it back

Call up a slide or resource from a previous topic, but make it so that certain words are blanked out, as if the material has been redacted. Drop this resource into that same lesson without warning, and ask the students to provide a choral response, where they all call out what they think the missing words are.

4. Putting the pieces back together

Select several key images from previous topics and photocopy them, before then chopping them up to form several simple jigsaws. Place the pieces making up each jigsaw into envelopes and distribute one each to different groups in the classroom. As the groups work to reassemble their image, challenge them to:

  • Recall the topic from where their image originated
  • Take it in turns to each describe something they recall about the topic

5. Memory markers

Keep revision at the forefront of your classroom by using physical memory markers. A simple version of this might involve using colour-coded Pringles tubes (or similar) to function as mini time capsules that can be used to store summarised key information collated when a topic was initially taught.

I’d recommend using a blend of trigger words, images, questions and other such material. Later, you can challenge students to:

  • Recall which colour tube might relate to which topic
  • Pull out a challenge and complete it – ‘How much can you recall about….?

6. Introduce new revision tools

Research has shown that variety in revision is vital for boosting memory, though I’d argue that it’s equally important for motivating pupils. An innovative strategy such as the Frayer model can be completed using existing knowledge in just 8 minutes.

Claire Gadsby (@RevisionExpert) is a leading educational author, trainer and director of Radical Revision – a cutting edge revision skills programme for exam success in all subjects. For a free trial, visit

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