When is revision not revision?

This article was written for The Association of Colleges’ website to promote my workshop in London in April.  

I have the pleasure of delivering a workshop for AoC Create in London in April on the subject of teaching English re-sits at post-16.

According to Ofsted, “Too much teaching in [post-16] English is not good enough.”

In the OECD’s 2015 global rankings, England placed 22nd out of 24 nations for literacy.

Recent GCSE results in the further education sector have been poor, with only 6.5% of learners achieving a grade C or above in English.

This should come as no surprise, however: the government dictates that if a student doesn’t secure a grade C in English at age 16 (the threshold for the new GCSE will be a grade 4 or ‘standard pass’), they are required to retake that subject – one with which they have likely struggled for 11 years at school – and, what’s more, they are required to pass it in just 36 weeks.

My workshop will address this thorny issue and, to whet your appetite, here are some of my brief thoughts on ensuring that the year of resit is not simply a year of revision…


Put simply, if we are to ensure that students pass their English GCSE second time around, then a menu of more of the same is not an option; a student’s year of re-sitting must not be regarded simply as a year of revision, revisiting over and again what they have already studied in school.

When is revision not revision?

The words ‘Today, we’re going to revise for an exam’ strike fear into students’ hearts.

Revision lessons have become synonymous with dull, repetitious labour. Revisiting by rote what students have already studied. Sitting past paper after past paper in silent rows, receiving nothing in return but a miserly missive in blood-red ink.

As such, I’ve learnt over the years that it’s better to talk not of ‘revision’ but of ‘exam preparation’, and preferable to think of ‘exam preparation lessons’ not as repeating what’s gone before but rather as a form of deliberate practice.

‘Revision’ implies going over old ground without seeking to learn from it and make improvements, and without seeking to introduce new concepts and spark fresh ideas.

‘Practice’, however, implies doing something new, incrementally improving your performance through a process of trial and error. And so doing by receiving feedback, learning from your mistakes and making tweaks in order to achieve marginal gains.

In short, exam preparation lessons should avoid learning by rote, reading and re-reading class notes. They should, instead, make use of two teaching strategies which have been proven to be amongst the most effective forms of pedagogy in any lesson, be it exam preparation or not, namely:

1. Practice testing, and
2. Distributed practice.

Let’s take a look at each…

Practice testing

The use of practice tests can improve learning in direct and indirect ways…

For example, if a student read a chapter in a textbook and then wanted to review the most important information in that chapter, she could do one of two things…

She could simply read the information again.

Or she could cover up the answers and attempt to recall the information ‘blind’, i.e. from memory.

The second method – testing herself – is by far the most effective because the student is boosting her long-term memory. Every correct retrieval improves the speed and ease of all subsequent attempts at retrieval.

Practice tests can also have an indirect effect on student learning because when a student fails to retrieve a correct answer during a practice test, their failure informs them that they need to revisit and re-learn this topic.

As such, practice tests help students determine and reinforce what has been mastered as well as what needs further practice.

Distributed practice

The second teaching strategy which is a highly effective form of exam preparation is distributed practice.

So how can we help students to distribute their practice?

Firstly, we should help students to map out how many study sessions they will need before an exam, when those sessions should take place (which evenings of the week and between what times), and what they should practice during each session. Two short study blocks per week should be sufficient to begin studying new material as well as to restudy previously learned material. Students should be able to retrieve previous material more easily after just a few study sessions which leaves more time for studying new material.

Secondly, we should use distributed practice in the classroom by repeatedly going back over the most important knowledge and concepts. For example, we could use weekly quizzes that repeat content several times so that students re-learn some concepts in a distributed manner. Repeating key points in several quizzes not only highlights the importance of that content but also affords students the opportunity to engage in distributed practice.

Thirdly, we should set a cumulative exam that forces students to review the most important information they’ve studied this year.

Follow me on Twitter @mj_bromley

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