Some of the most common revision tasks that teachers set don’t help students perform in exams, says Mark Enser.

Much of teaching feels very intuitive; passing on what has been learned from one generation to the next is human nature. Sometimes, however, our intuition is wrong and it leads us to pass on poor advice to our pupils.

One example is revising. It seems obvious that if you want to get better at a subject you should study it more. So, when we want pupils to revise we often set them tasks to re-study material, but in a new way. We are aware that simply re-reading notes or highlighting key passages won’t help pupils to learn; completing new tasks with the material seems an obvious way to make the learning stick.

The problem with ‘study’

I realised that I had been getting revision wrong for years when I read a research paper by Jeffrey Karpicke and Phillip Grimaldi. Previously, I had been setting work that involved students re-studying material. I would have them summarise information on a topic, use a chapter in a textbook to create a concept map of the issue, use their notes to answer exam questions – and students reported that they felt that these tasks helped.

The problem, as explained by Karpicke and Grimaldi in Retrieval-Based Learning: A Perspective for Enhancing Meaningful Learning (2012) is that re-studying works a lot less well than retrieving.

By asking students to use tools such as textbooks, revision guides and their notes, I was preventing them from using their long-term memory; the process of remembering had essentially been outsourced to these tools. They weren’t having to retrieve any information and strengthen their ability to recall. Come the exam, or a point in life when they needed access to this information and didn’t have their memory tools to hand, they would be left to flounder.

However, as a 2006 study by Henry Roediger and Karpicke illustrated, students who re-studied material felt much more confident in their ability than those who only studied once but then practised recalling as much as they could. This is likely because studying with notes in front of you feels familiar and safe. It feels good to summarise a chapter or turn information into a mind-map because this is quite easy to do. Yet when it came to the test, pupils who repeatedly studied performed worse than those relying on recall.

Steps to better revision

How do we fix the problem so that students feel confident in their abilities, but also perform well on the test when the time comes?

The solution is fairly straightforward: set pupils revision activities that rely on them recalling information from their memory, rather than re-studying it and transferring it from one place to another. If you share the rationale for this approach with them, and show them the research, they are more likely to follow the advice.

Many of the revision tasks students commonly do still work – they just need to put their notes away first. So, create a mindmap on all you can remember about coastal management, then look at your notes and see what you need to add. Read chapter two of Lord of the Flies and then put it away before writing a summary of what you have read. Answer a practice question, but do so without using the revision guide for help.

Another way to take advantage of retrieval in revision takes a bit more forward planning. The Cornell note system involves students dividing a page in their exercise book into three sections; a thin column on the left (the margin might just about do) the majority on the right and a box at the bottom. Students complete their work as normal in the large right-hand column. The magic comes after the lesson when they first sum up what they have learned in the box at the bottom of the page and then write quiz questions about the work in the column on the left.

Now, when they come to revise, rather than reading through their notes (and re-studying) they can answer their pre-prepared quiz questions about the work and use their power of recall instead. For more on this system see this post by Shaun Allison.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is out soon with Crown House