Effective Exam Revision – ‘Drill Baby Drill!’

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It is that time of year already. The weeks have suddenly crashed forward like waves and exam dates loom bleakly in the distance. Of course, we start looking for creative ways to sustain the interest of students. We look to engage them in their learning so that they may pay some attention to our relentless pleading for effort and revision. We explain the grandiose importance of said exams and those simple letters on certificates that provide their ticket to their future lives. I have taught for a decade now and I may despair of the examinations themselves, and the crass system of judgement that is league tables, but if our students are to succeed in these exams then as we approach exam season the answer is simple. In the words made famous by that famous sage – Sarah Palin(!): “drill baby drill!”

Let me explain my rationale for what may seem a simplistic and backward looking approach. Yes, there are many constructivist techniques that will aid the mastery of knowledge and therefore be appropriate for revision. Spacing out revision to encompass different topics, with varied pedagogy is likely to help make some of their learning more memorable. The evidence at hand; however, proves that testing as practice, repeated, with skilled feedback has a very positive impact on learning – see research here. This has been labelled the ‘testing effect’, whereat the act of retrieving information for a test is proven to improve recall more than simply restudying information. This is not advocating lots of high stakes testing, but simply a recognition that testing for learning works and improves long term retention of knowledge: the holy grail for exam success. We mustn’t shy away from exam drills given the nature of the assessment.

Let me say that I am a teacher of English that values creativity and imagination hugely. I deplore exams which are narrow and reductive. I will prepare students for an AS level English Literature exam where the great literature we read and I teach, such as the poetry of Robert Browning, is reduced rather simplistically into a mere list of narrative devices. Yet, exams in themselves are a necessary evil – an imperfect judgement of knowledge and understanding – but one of the best tools we have to do the job. What I have come to learn myself is that repetition, and even rote learning, can actually create the fertile conditions for subsequent creativity and the potent force of imagination. In the words of the great American basketball coach, John Wooden: “Drilling creates a foundation on which individual initiative and imagination can flourish.”

I recently posted a blog on ‘deliberate practice’ here which reiterates the point that real improvement and mastery comes from drilled repetition, with quick, useful feedback. Of course, to make the many marginal gains required for true expertise there is much repetition and deliberate practice required. Students will likely not often experience the heralded ‘flow’ state during revision. Going over and over any body of knowledge takes grit, discipline and perseverance because it can often be simply boring. We must be honest with students about the power of conquering boredom. I think the skill of mastering boredom is a sure-fire path to ultimate success. What we mustn’t do, as teachers, is collude with many aspects of our instant gratification culture, and actually avoid the challenge – we must embrace the boredom and the difficulty of repeated exam practice. We must communicate with our students that not all learning can, or even should, be fun; it can often be hard, challenging and mentally gruelling.

Through repeated deliberate practice of exams students become skilled in the automatic state that comes with habit forming. It is like driving in a car for the thousandth time, we then switch off and drift into our own automatic mode, often having creative reveries as we drive. A good real life example of his notion is from the world of sport. Barcelona FC are world renowned for being the greatest football team in the world, perhaps of all time. Their creativity and skill is celebrated by every football fan. Of course, it isn’t sheer chance that has seen this come to pass. The Barcelona way, initiated by a great player, and believer in deliberate practice, Johan Cruyff, relies on the simplest of training drills – the ‘rondo’. See here:

The ‘rondo’ drill cannot replicate the pressure of the actual match in many ways, but the repeated drill hones that quick passing habit which is so key to their creative passing style – known as ‘tika taka’. It is a simplification of the real game, much like focusing in on exam technique, crafting and drafting the perfect exam answer singularly, rather than sitting full papers endlessly. what you can see in the video is the mastery, and the related pleasure, that comes from drilling and deliberate practice. What we must do is stop seeing repetition as being the enemy of creativity or higher order thinking. With exam revision repetition is our friend. We need to communicate that in the language we use to students. Like with writing, we cannot exhibit real creativity unless we have mastered the laws of grammar. Like Picasso painting a Cubist masterpiece, we cannot creatively break the rule unless we practise and understand those rules in the first place. We cannot make the cognitive leap of imaginative originality unless we have a solid grounding in the core knowledge of the basics.

It is common sense really, but too often teachers feel the pressure to teach ‘all singing, all dancing’ lessons, or make the learning fun and creative, when sometimes the most effective method is some good old-fashioned drilling of practice and well chosen drills of testing for learning.

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

4 responses to “Effective Exam Revision – ‘Drill Baby Drill!’”

  1. Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) says :

    Yes, it’s both. Both! Why is this so difficult to understand? I love the Barcelona analogy, Cruyff was one of the architects of Total Football – fluency and creativity, based on intelligent design and practice. What we need to create is Total Pedagogy, an approach that embraces all dimensions of teaching and learning – teachers selecting the appropriate method for the learning outcomes we want to see. And that includes rote – for short, focused tasks – not all the time, but regularly, for some of the time, with a purpose.

  2. CristinaM. says :

    I teach in a constructivist environment and inquiry is at the heart of learning. There is not a “fun” or “let’s pretend we’re busy” approach at all. There is a lot of thinking and conceptual understanding involved.

    I can, however, agree on the necessity of knowing the rules before breaking them. What I would tweak though is that this knowing can happen without involving students in repetitive tedious activities but in increasingly complex sophisticated acts of learning.

    • huntingenglish says :

      I think the repetition and any testing should be appropriately spaced. I also value constructivist approaches and the nature of enquiry and I have written as much in my previous posts. I am aiming to eschew false dichotomies such as ‘creativity’ versus ‘deliberate practice’ involving repetition. I think constructivist approaches have their strengths too and I would look to seek a balanced approach to pedagogy in my teaching.

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