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Revision – How to make their learning memorable

If there’s a tricky part of your subject curriculum just around the corner, get prepared with these tips for making your teaching stick, say Jan Evans and Claire Gadsby...

  • Revision – How to make their learning memorable
  • Revision – How to make their learning memorable

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You’ve taught it, but have they learnt it? Thanks to the work of people like Robert Bjork and his ‘desirable difficulties’ recommendations, the value of spaced repetition is now readily acknowledged as a key factor in long-term learning.

However, it can be easy to lose sight of this in the busy day-to-day life of the classroom. The problem is further compounded by an over-full curriculum that often leads to a ‘coverage’ mentality.

It’s worth noting that Ofsted’s new inspection framework places great emphasis on retention and ‘fluency’ in learning, defining learning as a change in long-term memory and stressing that if nothing changes in long term memory, nothing will have been learned.

We should begin, then, by making initial learning more memorable. As subject specialists, you know what the knottiest, most challenging and difficult to remember aspects of your curriculum are.

Develop deep learning of these from the outset by ensuring that the delivery methods used in the initial teaching are dynamic and different in their own right.

Students will have a better chance of remembering significant facts if they are able to associate the information with novel visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and positive emotional experiences, as they will then have multiple neural pathways to access for retrieval.

A greater emphasis on these positive and emotional experiences during learning can also help to reduce revision and exam-related stress for our students.

Simmering learning

Typically, revision will consist of students revisiting a unit of work long after it was initially learned.

We would advocate taking a more dynamic approach, so that revision isn’t a tedious ‘bolt-on process’ tackled at the end of the syllabus, but rather an ongoing, low stakes process that keeps learning ‘simmering’.

Perhaps it’s time to rebrand revision? We much prefer the term, ‘To resurrect and revive’.

In our work with schools around the world, we’ve seen that the classroom environment has huge untapped potential for making learning more challenging and memorable. We therefore want to share here some low-prep, high impact techniques you can easily adapt for your own use.

From static to dynamic

Beyond the word wall
It’s important that students understand and correctly use subject terminology. It’s common to see beautifully presented displays of key vocabulary which, despite much effort (usually on the part of the teacher) go under-utilised. Turn these mere ‘memory props’ into active challenges.

Learner-generated displays
Get the students to actively involve themselves in memorable processes by generating or contributing to such displays themselves. Is their choice of significant terminology and information the same as yours?

In or out
Challenge the students to spot which words are missing from, or have been added to a display. Doing this at regular intervals establishes the expectation that students will understand the significance of the words – and remember them – rather than relying on the display as a permanent reference list.

Split them up
Separate key terms from their definitions and challenge pupils to match them up correctly. Alternatively, challenge pairs of students to write a definition.

This is an easy ‘simmering’ activity that can be quickly targeted towards any students at any point to check understanding and identify gaps in memory. You could also run this as a competition, with selected pupils checking and critiquing the definitions.

Revisiting prior learning

Hidden in plain sight

Retain evidence of prior learning and store this in prominent places within your classroom; cardboard tubes and large plastic jars are ideal.

Challenge students to decide what symbol or image should represent the contents and stick this onto your vessel (much has been written about the power of dual-coding with the use of images to support memory).

The idea is that pupils should be able to see the stimulus but not interact with it – at least not yet! At strategic points, this learning can then be resurrected and revived.

Tasty tacos

Give individual pupils or groups a paper plate they can fold in half and use to contain information about a topic they’ve recently studied. Encourage them to adopt a ‘confetti’ approach to the filling by including a mix of questions, tasks, clues, riddles, images and so forth.

Invite them to make some of their ‘taco fillings’ extra challenging, and perhaps signify this via colour-coding. Have students create strong visual images for the outside of each taco. A powerful variation can be to make tacos with a filling consisting of key messages distilled from mock exam feedback.

Sealing the crimped edges with staples will trap the contents securely. Leaving a small gap between the staples will let you insert additional ideas and teacher challenges. String the tacos up in the classroom and periodically challenge the students to remember what they included.

After a period of time, take the tacos down and invite the pupils to work together in tackling the learning challenges they contain.

Step back in time / Checking out
Display a stimulus relating to prior learning prominently in the classroom doorway. As they step over it, challenge pupils to articulate or write down what they can remember about it after they’ve entered.

Repeat the process as pupils exit the classroom, ensuring that they ‘check out’ of your lesson in a meaningful way. Use the original stimulus, but add sentence stems or thinking routines to encourage progression – for example, ‘I now think…’, ‘I now know…’ etc.

On a roll

At the end of a topic, move the furniture to reveal a space on the floor large enough to unfurl long rolls of paper. Challenge students to work collaboratively on covering the paper with representations of what they can recall from that topic in a style of their choice.

Explain that if there are any elements they can’t remember, they should first use each other as a resource and then refer back to their books if necessary. Observing exactly what pupils are checking in their books provides feedback as to which aspects may need checking or re-teaching.

For 150 more practical ideas see Dynamically Different Classrooms by Claire Gadsby and Jan Evans, published by Independent Thinking Press. To find out more about ‘Radical Revision’ workshops for your students and/or parents, contact info@clairegadsby.com.


Jan Evans is an education consultant with over 30 years’ experience of working in education, and was the lead consultant in Oxfordshire for Assessment for Learning; follow her at @Janet_Evans27.

Claire Gadsby provides school development services that include CPD and training sessions, as well as revision support via her Radical Revision Workshops across a range of educational settings.

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