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GCSE revision – Start encouraging better exam habits from Y7

Photo of teenage girl throwing Post-it notes, representing GCSE revision

If you want to ingrain good GCSE revision habits among your students, the real work should begin at KS3, advises Charlotte Lander…

Charlotte Lander
by Charlotte Lander
Macbeth revision and teaching resources
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Every teacher will be wearily familiar with the way some students in successiveb cohorts demonstrate the same bad GCSE revision habits and practices, year on year.

Could the key to tackling problematic GCSE revision habits lie in better preparation and instruction at KS3? Though if so, given the absence of any formal assessments between Y7 and Y9, how might this be built in, given teachers’ existing curriculum tasks?

Consider the synonyms for ‘revision’ you’ll find in a typical dictionary – ‘cramming,’ ‘rereading’… and cue the eye-rolling. Many, if not all teachers will at some point have taught students with an emotional attachment to their highlighters. You will have also taught others who preferg a more passive approach. This is usually signalled by a worrying lack of GCSE revision notes, cards – or indeed any preparation at all.

At its core, revision is the act of preparation. Successful GCSE revision, however, is both disciplined and purposeful. As teachers, we know that revision is ultimately a skill that we need to teach, model, practise and hone, just like any other. So it follows that the sooner we can start explicitly teaching those effective revision habits, the better.

Introducing our expectations

The question we then need to ask is when we should introduce our expectations for revision. If we stop to think about it, what does effective revision in a school setting actually look like? We might call to mind a Y11 student doing GCSE revision – creating mind maps and testing their peers on key information with the aid of flashcards. Or they might be quietly tucked away, busily jotting down knowledge from memory.

Yet both scenarios miss something important – the opportunities there are for students in KS3 to draw links between low-stakes retrieval quizzes, and the long-term retention of key subject knowledge needed for the exam room.

For many years, teachers have widely used retrieval practice in the classroom to improve learning through recall. Further to this, we continue to model metacognitive awareness; teaching students how to actively reflect upon their own thought processes in response to a task.

We explicitly teach these and many other effective classroom tools. However, we often leave revision to sit patiently waiting in the student’s toolbox until we’re finally ready to put it into action at KS4. This is alongside the assumption that students already have a cognitive blueprint for how to use it.

Strategy, mindset and behaviour

Often, one of the biggest challenges at KS4 (and KS5) is how to address the behaviour of students who rely on a brief last-minute scan of their notes. Or those who believe that cramming the night before is the key to success.

By this point, it’s usually too late for students to adopt and commit to a new way of revising. But if we can teach our Y7s that the recipe for successful revision incorporates strategy, mindset and behaviour, then we’re helping to build the foundations of long-term retention skills.

Possessing both the knowledge of how to revise effectively and the skill needed to put this knowledge into practice will enable students to experience a genuine sense of achievement in their learning.

A good starting point for this could involve organising workshops. Groups of KS4 students could, for example, organise and deliver revision-focused workshops to their KS3 peers across a range of curriculum areas.

These sessions might see the older students modelling their own revision habits and sharing their personal experiences. This might be how to:

  • summarise topics
  • identify keywords in a question
  • maximise the capacity of their working memory
  • use their knowledge organiser effectively.

If we can place explicit emphasis on students taking an active and effortful role in their learning, we can establish an important bridge between accountability and outcomes.

Revision redefined

If we could could start presenting revision as a form of ‘disciplined preparation’ that requires students to actively process, familiarise, decode and rehearse information, we’ll be creating multiple opportunities for students to ‘revise’ long before KS4. This is all without explicitly using the term itself.

Then again, we could argue that the term ‘revision’ is actually one that should be more commonplace in KS3 than it is currently. The naive assumption that revision is simply the act of ‘cramming the night before an exam’ or ‘rereading and highlighting notes’ can discourage students from applying the kind of (considerably more helpful) strategies they already employ daily in the classroom, all because of those limiting connotations often attached to the word ‘revision’.

Using the structure of Cornell Notes, you could task students in a Y7 English class with completing ten minutes of independent revision. Let’s say you prompt them to recall their knowledge of Stave 2 in A Christmas Carol.

They can spend five minutes retrieving their knowledge onto their notes sheets. Pupils can then spend the next two minutes familiarising themselves with the key events.

They can then spend the final three minutes reflecting on any knowledge they’ve missed and adding this to their sheets. Essentially, the students will have engaged with ten purposeful minutes of revision.

The activity itself might not be especially new or ground-breaking. However, it shows how straightforward the process of redefining students’ understanding of ‘revision’ can be.

Recognition and recall

While it’s all well and good prompting students to create mind maps or use flashcards at any Key Stage, if we aren’t teaching students how to actually engage with the content itself, then the blueprint will remain unfinished. More than this, we should expose students to the why.

Circling back to metacognitive awareness, it’s crucial for students to begin drawing links early on between what, how and why. We should expose them to why it’s so important to revisit knowledge often, and why transferring key information to flashcards will then allow them to use these at a later date as a cue for retrieving further relevant knowledge.

It’s one thing to create consistent opportunities to engage with effective revision habits. It’s quite another for students to understand why these are so valuable within the broader learning process.

Effective GCSE revision

A key aspect of effective revision is that it requires the student to take an active role in their learning. The goal is ultimately for students to distinguish between information they recognise and information they can recall. The latter will indicate a far greater sense of understanding.

The creation of ‘desirable difficulty’ is a fundamental element of good revision practice. It’s one employed in commonplace teaching strategies like spaced practise and interleaving.

Yet it can still feel much more comfortable for students to revise information they already understand. This creates a false sense of reassurance through the avoidance or dismissal of more challenging topics.

We must expose and confront these types of misplaced and ineffective revision habits at an early stage. We can model this self-awareness throughout KS3. This is by equipping students with the ability to hold themselves accountable for how to plan and structure considerably more effective revision habits.

Given that lack of formal examinations at KS3, it may feel too soon to introduce your students to revision-based approaches and strategies.

Yet if we want to capitalise on the success of independent study, then we should want our students to feel that we’ve equipped them with the tools and blueprint needed to actively implement much healthier revision habits. Ideally at a far earlier stage than the night before the exam…

Charlotte Lander is a teacher of English and psychology, and specialist in Talk for Learning.

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