Lucinda Powell – Education Consultant in Mental Health and Wellbeing
It feels like we are back to ‘normal’ in education but as we hit the exam season this year, those taking A Levels are doing public exams for the first time. They haven’t had the opportunity to put revision to the test (because let’s face it, revising for mocks is never the same as for the real thing).
The challenge for many students is working out what revision strategies work best for them, and realising that the strategies that feel the best are often the ones that are, in the long term, the least effective.
In this blog for students I consider five areas that can really boost the effectiveness of revision. It is accompanied by a series of podcasts and a couple of videos that allows you to delve deeper into any of the areas and tailor your revision. Just follow the links to the podcasts, or you can find all of the podcasts and videos on the Changing states of mind website.
To effectively plan revision you need to have a number of key pieces of information:
So start by looking at creating a realistic study timetable that works for you as a learner. Think about whether you are a morning lark and want to get in an hour before school, or a night owl and can go late into the evening. Plan in all your extra-curricular activities (it is good for you to do these things). Also give yourself downtime: seeing friends, watching TV or doing sport are essential for you to manage your stress. You cannot revise 24/7. See this quick video on how to build a timetable.
You then need to think about what you are going to do in the time you have set aside for revision. Most teachers will be able to provide you with a list but a simple Google search usually provides a suitable list (Google your subject, GCSE/A Level, exam board and ‘Personalised Learning Checklist’). You could also copy the contents page of the textbook or revision book.
Your next task is to go through this list and colour code each item. Red means no idea, definitely need to revise, amber is understand but need to come back to it, and green: got it and a quick review before the exam will be enough. When you are planning you always start with the red stuff.
Sit down to each revision session with a plan in mind. It’s useful to set aside some time each week to plan your revision for the week ahead rather than doing it ad hoc each day. This can help stop you doing more of what you enjoy and find easy, rather than the stuff that you really need to focus on. Listen to the Planning revision podcast.
One of the challenges for you is knowing when you have learned something. Passive revision techniques such as reading and re-reading notes, watching videos and listening to podcasts put the information in but don’t actively stretch you by getting you to recall it. These strategies feel effective, and in the short term they are pretty good, but a week later you will have forgotten most of what you thought you had learned.
Active strategies are harder work, highlight what you don’t know and generally feel less effective. But research consistently shows that these harder strategies are more effective. You need to actively practise recalling information to help it stick in long term memory. This could be through a wide range of strategies (see below) but if you are not actively engaging with the information you are learning then it will not stick. Recalling will also help you identify whether the information should be red, amber or green. Listen to the Active revision podcast.
So the key to any strategy is that it involves retrieval of information in some form or another. In addition, effective strategies use cues (usually words) that help us unlock information stored in the brain and enable us to test our knowledge through recall. So currently you are reading this and hopefully thinking about revision, but if I type ‘Penguin’ you are suddenly able to unlock all the information you know about these adorable flightless birds that you weren’t thinking about before.
The cues you need to use are the words that will appear on your exam paper. For example ‘photosynthesis’ might be a word used in a question, and this should unlock say four more cues such as ‘plants’, ‘chlorophyll’, ‘Carbon dioxide + water → glucose + oxygen + water’, ‘green’. You would then be able to talk around or explain why these things are important. By working out what cues will activate your memory for photosynthesis you can then easily check your understanding.
In the revision strategies podcast I take you through how to effectively use:
Remember that these techniques highlight what you know and what you don’t know. Use this information to help you revise strategically and focus on the areas where you have least knowledge – it will be hard at times.
It is all very well focusing on what you are doing but do you ever consider where you are revising? Creating an environment conducive to learning is really important. There is research that suggests that it can take up to 23 minutes to refocus on revision after a distraction (that can include anything from phones to food) so you need to remove distractions. Students report that they work more effectively when there is quiet and phones/technology are away from them.
Ultimately no one enjoys revision so making it as efficient and effective as possible is in your own interests. This means that you need to make some tough decisions and may need some help to enforce them.
Here are my top tips for the perfect revision environment:
If you want to find out more about creating the perfect environment for your revision you can listen to the revision environment podcast, which explains the ‘why’ behind some of these suggestions.
Sleep is really important for consolidating your memories. We know that when we are tired we become more forgetful and find it hard to concentrate. Getting a good night’s sleep is therefore vital to ensuring effective revision. You should be aiming for a minimum of 8 hours of sleep per night. Do this by working backwards from when you need to wake up, so if you get up at 7am, you need to be asleep (not just in bed) by 11pm.
If you struggle to get to sleep, work on a consistent bedtime routine – that doesn’t involve time on your phone – for the hour before bed. Also make sure your bed is a place where you can relax. If you revise on your bed you will start to associate it with the stress of exams, so as part of your perfect revision environment keep your revision space and your sleep space separate.
For more information about the role of sleep in learning take a listen to our Revision and sleep podcast.
There’s more support for students taking exams this summer on the OCR student pages, and don’t forget to follow OCR on Instagram.
If you have a moment, please take a look at our dedicated Mental Health Awareness Week webpage where we’re sharing anxiety and wellbeing lesson plans, blogs and podcasts for teachers and students.
All that remains for me to say is good luck.
Lucinda Powell (BSc, PGCE, MA) is Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning at Abingdon School. She also works to support teachers to use evidenced based psychology in all aspects of their classroom practice.
She taught psychology since 2002 in a variety of schools in London and Oxfordshire. Since September 2017 she has been working as a Education Consultant specialising in the links between psychology and education, with a focus on mental health and wellbeing. As well as presenting at conferences, running teacher training courses, and tutoring study skills, she led the Oxfordshire Schools Mental Health and Wellbeing Network and is the lead tutor for the Psychology PGCE for Initial Teacher Training at Coventry University.
Her podcast ‘Psychology in the Classroom’ brings psychological research directly to the classroom. She has worked as a coach on the School Mental Health Award at the Carnegie School of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools since 2018.