On revision

There has been a lot of discussion on edutwitter recently following this article by the former Headteacher of a school just up the hill from me: Barnaby Lennon report BBC

7 hours?

‘No’ – one student quoted elsewhere suggests: “It’s just nonsensical. No one could do that. It’s way too much. No one can concentrate by themselves for so long. My view is I can achieve my potential with maybe three hours a day. Seven hours a day is simply not productive.”

Who knows? Can we even quantify the optimum amount of time to spend revising? It’s doubtful.

That said, I am closer to Lennon in my view than to the view of the quoted A level student in The Guardian. Whilst he or she may be correct, I wonder what they are doing for the rest of the 15 hours of the day for which they are awake. A little more engagement can’t do any harm really.

In terms of time, I suggest that my students divide the ‘working day’ into a morning, afternoon and evening session – each of around 3 hours. They should work for any two of these sessions and plan carefully to allow time to relax and time to socialise. In any hour, 50 minutes should be worked, with the ‘spare 10’ being used for a walk around or cup of tea – not for social media and not for phone use.

I suggest also getting up early and beginning the morning session at 9.00 AM. That is when exams start, so don’t lull your body into a false pattern of late bed and late rising. It is counterproductive.  Oh yes: I suggest a 5 day week in this manner and 3 sessions at the weekend, one of which should be Sunday evening.

Maybe it is too much, for some it may be too little…. But when we assume that this pattern is using 48 hours a week (each hour is actually only around 50 minutes remember) and leaving something in the area of 78 hours free, and 8 hours a night for sleep, I do not see it as being too much to ask for the few weeks leading up to exams which will decide their futures.

More important is how they use the time alloted.

If we assume that they will have made a timetable to help them, then these are my rules for revision…. (with an English Department bias)

  1. Revise the hard stuff too. Many students will focus on material they can already do and leave the tricky or ‘boring’ stuff as being too much trouble. In this they are like the cricketer who spends all his time in the nets hitting sixes and showing what he can do, before getting out in matches because he has not mastered the delicate stuff like the late cut.
  2. Be an active reader. Reading is not revision, it is passing time. Unless you engage with the material in an active way, little is going in. I suggest using a pad and pen as you read and giving yourself a focus. Make notes as you go along, and at the end of the tea break, at the start of the next 50 minute session, rewrite those notes into something more precise and more detailed.  If we assume tha ta set text for a closed book exam needs familiarity and flexibility only developed over 10 re-readings, then gove each reading a focus – portrayal of the feminine, theme of hypocrisy etc. Only focus on that theme but allow yourself to spot links to other areas and make the notes accordingly.
  3. Remove all obvious distraction. Remove all phones and other devices unnecessary to your work from your workspace. The merest buzz of a silent ringer will destroy your concentration. Remember that exams can be 2 or 3 hours long. You need to train yourself to be able to concentrate for that length of time.
  4. Work with your friends.  I believe in pairing up to revise, as long as you do revise. If you don’t trust yourselves to work at home without ending up youtubing, go to a library or somewhere in which you have to focus (such as a school!). Paired games like slaps, top trump revision can be excellent low-stakes retrieval activities. In another sense, work with your friends to help each other. Agree times at which you will chat online or on the phone. Share your schedules so you don’t interrupt each other – a little generosity in this way will pay huge dividends.
  5. Use a range of resources. Get to know the reliable online sources and look into YouTube as a learning platform. Take advice from a teacher, perhaps, rather than from a friend – they may be more perceptive.
  6. Try to work on everything regularly – don’t leave a subject out of your plan because it is not examined for a couple of weeks. Keep topping up the work and recall will become much swifter when it is needed.
  7. Kill the music. This is contentious – I have had it proven to me and will be proving it to my colleagues in a couple of weeks, that music distracts. As I type today I am listening to Brahms. I am distracted. It’s a recording that is new to me (Nelsons/BSO Brahms 2) and I am constantly interrupting myself to listen to little moments which catch my ear. Yet I know that for serious work music distracts and causes the brain to constantly shift between the aural stimulus and the work which I am trying to complete. At the very least, make one of your daily sessions a silent session. What harm can it do?
  8. SLEEP.  Oh isn’t he cool? The boy bragging on the way into an exam about having pulled an ‘all-nighter’? Actually he’s a pillock. It might work, if short term factual retention is all that is needed, as long as the precise information revised is required. But the evidence suggests that this is not the way to revise. We all know that when we are tired we make poor decisions, become clumsy and more emotional than when we are well rested. Exams are stressful enough without placing yourself in this situation deliberately. Plan to succeed – plan to avoid the nightmare of sleep deprivation when you need to be at your most alert.
  9. Ask for help.  I want students to email me if things are tough and they are stuck. Not at first, though. First response must be to try and fix it for yourself, just as you must in an examination. But if it really is a tricky one, send a short and focused request for help to the person who can help.
  10. Your work is a great source of information. I hope you have kept your old essays and assessed work. This is a great place to start. It is your writing, so you should understand the points being made and it has been assessed so there should be pointers for improvement here. Likewise, unless you have been a highlight artist, your books should be well annotated and precisely highlighted to help you to follow a range of ideas through to their conclusions.

Good Luck – I hope this helps in some small way!