There is a lot of cognitive science research that proves what revision strategies work best for embedding information into the long term memory – which is our goal in relation to exam success. Some of it is common sense, but other aspects may surprise you or challenge your thinking.
There are many time-consuming revision strategies that actually fool us into thinking we have embedded the knowledge into our long term memory. For example, simply re-reading texts or notes has been seen to have a low impact with regard to memory retention, especially considering how much time this can take, but students are happy because this is a relatively undemanding task that takes little mental effort and it feels like effective revision. Re-reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ for an English Literature exam doesn’t have the impact we need, especially given how time consuming it is as a revision activity, therefore other, better, strategies should be undertaken. Other edu-myths also cloud effective planning for exam revision. There is an old adage abound in education that: “We learn: 10 percent of what we read; 20 percent of what we hear; 30 percent of what we both see and hear; 50 percent of what we discussed with others; 80 percent of what we experience personally; 95 percent of what we teach to someone else.” This is a myth based on no evidence. It has become perpetuated because it is an easily reductive formula, but it is unfounded. David Didau lances this particularly boil to good effect here. We must go beyond these simplifications and seek answers from more reputable research to judge against our experience.
The following strategies are underpinned by more reputable scientific research and evidence:
– Information retrieval over re-reading: It may prove more challenging in the short term, but getting students to try to remember the content of a given topic is more effective than making revision notes based on their original content, textbooks etc. ‘Concept mapping’ is an ideal teaching tool for this (think of its popular branding, image and colour laden brother ‘mind-mapping’!). At the end of each week for example, have students attempt to retrieve the information, without their notes or books. They create a hierarchy of connections that they can attempt to organise conceptually.
Research: http://learninglab.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2012_Karpicke_CDPS.pdf. Thank you to @websofsubstance whose excellent blog post of retrieval helped me source this research: http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/golden-retrievers/
– Collaborative retrieval: Typically we associate revision activities and memory as requiring individual focus. Indeed, there is some evidence that group work can inhibit some learning, but there is evidence that students working in groups can have a positive effect, where students work together ‘cross cueing’ the information they are recalling. Put simply, they help one another remember and retrieve aspects of key information they would not have remembered individually. Also, the social nature of working together can create memory cues that help individuals recall well over time. Of course, any errors in retrieval, either individually or collaboratively, need teacher correction.
– ‘Spacing’ versus ‘massed’ practice: This finding is common sense really. ‘Spacing‘ is when revising the same information two or three times across a few days improves the likelihood of retaining information in the long term memory (Nuttall, 1999). This may include revising a poem and making connections with another poem, then revisiting the key aspects of that poem in the subsequent lesson, before finally doing a ‘concept map’ at the end of the week to revise the learning from the lessons that week. ‘Massed‘ practice, or ‘cramming‘, can have a good short term effect on memory recall, but it fails in the long term in comparison to ‘spacing’ out revision. There is no exact time or number of days concerning how much ‘spaced’ time should be allocated; however, the research indicted the number of days ‘spacing’ is shorter the nearer the exam. In practical terms, over a half-term, we could revisit a concept after a couple of weeks, but nearer they exam we would cluster a couple more ‘revisions’ of the concept/information.
David Didau has written an excellent blog explaining spacing etc. and the implications for curriculum planning, and what ‘progress’ in learning may look like here.
Research: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.pdf?ijkey=Z10jaVH/60XQM&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi and for an in-depth focus on ‘spacing’: http://uweb.cas.usf.edu/~drohrer/pdfs/Carpenter_et_al_2012EPR.pdf
– Using ‘worked examples’: This is the common method of using past exemplars or creating your own through ‘shared writing‘ strategies. It gives students a working template for their revision and reduces obstacles that stops them learning more knowledge. Ideally, teachers should lead model worked examples of exam questions, thereby giving students a clear idea of an excellent answer, before fading back and letting students tackle exam questions independently. Of course, once more, quality feedback is key in this process.
A great blog by Joe Kirby goes into great depth about the ‘why’ of using ‘worked examples’ here.
– Regular in-class testing: Drilling answers to tests, under test conditions, can improve both short term and long term memory to boost revision (Roediger et al 2011). Like the retrieval practice of ‘concept mapping’, the very act of retrieval without resources to support proves more memorable than any ‘re-study’ activity. Taking a test can lead to students becoming less confident, therefore quick and accurate feedback is key to making testing highly effective and building confidence. There is research to say that teachers often drastically overestimate what they believe their students to know (Kelly, 1999) so repeated testing is a practical necessity. In terms of learning, there is much research that testing revision material has a positive impact on long term memory in comparison with simply revisiting material.
Another important consideration is that students naturally revise in a ‘massed’ learning style i.e. last minute cramming! It is labelled the ‘procrastination scallop‘ by Jack Michael here. This led to a recommended ‘exam a day’ approach, which forces students to distribute their revision more evenly, rather than just cramming. It may seem excessive, but getting students to do challenging retrieval that informs the teacher what they know and don’t know (and invariably if they have revised or not) regularly, like quizzes etc. could do the job.
Research: http://people.duke.edu/~ab259/pubs/Roediger&Butler(2010).pdf and the ‘exam a day’ research: http://www.teachpsych.com/ebooks/tips2011/I-07-01Leeming2002.pdf
A lot less scientific, but a fun revision strategy that works for many:
– Building a ‘palace of memory’ is a much less scientific way of improving memory recall, but it is apparently thousands of years old, originating with the Greek poet, Simonides of Ceos, in the fifth century BC. See this Guardian article for an excellent example of the method in action: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/15/memory-palaces-lists
How does this equate to a revision programme?
I am now avoiding revision activities or homework revision tasks that recommend simply revisiting information. I will plan to interleave different topics each week, to create the necessary ‘spacing’ between topics (in my English GCSE class this will mean studying poetry for English Literature at the start of the week, the novel and short stories in the middle of the week, ending the week with English Language revision). I will give regular mini-tests, drilling individual answers, with ‘worked examples’ in the first instance to model a good answer. The feedback on their answers will be timely and regular. I want to undertake weekly retrieval activities that reflect upon what they have learnt that week (combining ‘spacing’ and ‘retrieval’)
It is clear that the process of revision happens inside and outside the classroom. Students who possess the grit and resilience to persist with the humdrum nature of revision tasks will have a greater chance at success, but teachers must also identify and plan revision strategies that work. Of course, our experience and intuition about what will work best for our students is important, but we should challenge our assumptions with the wider research that is easily accessible on the web.
Caption: “I sat Gove’s EBacc and look where it got me!”
I am not necessarily angry at the demise of the GCSE; however, I am annoyed that Gove appears to be spurning his undeserved privilege to create a truly world class qualification in the place of GCSEs that can make us all proud. Gove’s EBacc isn’t finalised by any means – but surely the misguided proposal of a sole final three hour exam for a national English qualification could not possibly be the totality of any qualification to ready students for a complex and rapidly changing modern world. Expecting a qualification with a concluding three hour examination as its only method of assessment to ready students for their diverse and highly technological future is like asking a giraffe to climb a tree to ready it for survival on the barren plains of the Serengeti! Gove appears to avidly ignore a wealth of educational evidence, and the myopic prejudices of Gove and Gibb look set to squander any hope of a modern qualification for English, the Humanities and beyond, that is truly fit for purpose.
There are a range of examinations, both nationally and internationally, to draw upon to create the best qualifications for our 11-16 year olds that is fit to prepare them for their complex future. Gove appears to eschew such research, evidence and expertise, and he appears to stubbornly rely upon his conservative prejudices – he may praise certain qualifications, but he refuses to learn lessons from them. So what current options do we have for which to build an ideals set of qualifications? We have the GCSEs (labelled as wholly discredited, mostly by people whose knowledge is slim and their prejudice fat); the iGCSE (a favoured preserve of Private schools); the International Baccalaureate – at both Middle Years and Diploma (praised repeatedly by Gove), as well as a host of internationally renowned qualifications. I would ask a series of questions about how our assessment for this curriculum stage, and our curriculum more broadly, would be composed to best suit the skills and knowledge required for the future:
Where is the place for Project Based Learning?
The PISA report, one of Gove’s sacred tracts, revealed how assessment models that embed project based learning are the way forward for successful assessment models. I have quoted this in my diatribe against Gove’s Ebacc before (https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/an-angry-response-to-gove-levels/), but it bears repeating. PISA found in the ‘framework for assessment’ aspect of the report that:
” “problem-solving competency” can be developed through “progressive teaching methods, like problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning” and project work. “The Pisa 2012 computer-based assessment of problem-solving aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient,””
This approach is not a new phenomenon, but it is a manner of assessment that is rich in a diverse manner of skills: from independent research; to reading a complex range of sources (from the Internet to ancient literature) and synthesising ideas in a logical structure; to extended writing with a real purpose and a real audience; to a final oral presentation which is ‘testing’ in the most rigorous and rewarding manner. In IB schools, 11-16 year olds already undertake such projects, like in the Southbank international school in London: http://www.southbank.org/personal-project.html. Should we not seek out the assessment celebrated by the very international body Gove so clearly heralds?
Where is the place for Speaking and Listening?
A three hour exam is all well and good as a simple measuring stick, but our children will need to exist in a social world where they will also need to communicate successfully in a myriad of ways still unimaginable to us now. They need to be highly flexible in their capacity to communicate with different audiences and in different contexts – in a truly globally connected world. The current GCSE model of three oral assessments in English, includes a drama performance, a group discussion and an individual presentation. It is imperfect, but it is wholly appropriate to lending credence to the central place of oral communication in any and every assessment model. Gove could warmly remember his days as President of the Oxford Union if he were to come to a state school like mine (he would dread this I’m sure!) and listen to some highly enlightened current debate. Only this week my Year 11 English group have been arguing about the nature of fame, Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes’ and the importance of role models in our contemporary world. Yes, a final examination does not exclude the central position of discussion in our pedagogy, yet every student and teacher in the land will be under pressure to teach to the test – keep your dogmatic league tables Mr Gove and you will continue to see teaching through the eye of a narrow test.
In the International Baccalaureate Diploma there is an oral presentation and an oral commentary (recorded for and moderated by the IB) in the A1 English aspect of the course. These form nearly a third of the overall assessment for A1 English for one of the most renowned and rigorous qualifications across the world. The oral commentary is a developed response to literary texts and it is highly challenging. Is such an assessment model not fit and proper for our students? Would it not hone a whole host of skills and inject a much needed diversity into our proposed Ebacc assessment model?
Where is the place for multi-modal writing and technology?
Gove is a self-professed traditionalist, and as an English teacher, I would debate heatedly the importance and relevance of Shakespeare in any modern English curriculum. I may draw the line at Gove’s liking for Dryden, but I have a keen preference for the classical canon. That being said, we live in a rapidly changing world where media literacy and multi-modal texts must be combined with the best of the traditional canon of knowledge. This isn’t pandering to create a curriculum for ‘enjoyment’; the reading of film, a critical analysis of the web and a skilful knowledge of texts that combine all of the above, are crucial skills for a future when the written word will continue to synchronise with technology in ways we cannot fully comprehend.
Once again, project based learning can encourage the use of tools of modern technology in a real and innovative fashion. Seeing students be creative with iPads, smart phones or computers to create films, applications or presentations, truly celebrates a multitude of skills appropriate for the future when technology will surely be integral to learning and living.
Where is the place for extended writing not completed in exam conditions?
Now, let me set the record straight, neither old fashioned coursework, nor the new controlled assessment system is ideal as a mode for assessment. Crucially; however, the role of extended writing produced in a series of drafts, and honed and crafted, is just as valid as any examination approach to extended writing. If the issue is the ‘gaming’ of the system that occurs with coursework, as so famously exposed through examples like the honourable Prince Harry and his Private school art teacher; or the limiting of curriculum time created by the stultifying controlled assessments, then learn from those errors and make the assessment better! Create an independent piece of extended writing that is offered in a portfolio approach, where proposals are recorded, drafts are retained etc. We may even come to recognise the value of crafting writing with research, deep thought and revisions, rather than celebrating the reductive time constraints of the exam model. Again, the IB Diploma has this enshrined in the Extended Essay aspect of the qualification. It allows for an independence of thinking and exploration we would surely seek to foster in all our students – whilst honing a range of skills simply not possible in an exam-only model.
How do we get our students to ask and answer questions that can’t be tested?
The exam-only model is clearly reductive. It is easily measurable, quantifiable and scalable (and sellable to bloated exam boards!) – therefore it is the default model for education systems around the world. Crucially, however, continental systems still manage to embed philosophy and critical thinking at the heart of their curriculum. In the IB Diploma, for example, TOK (Theory of Knowledge) explores knowledge and thinking in rich and diverse ways. Time is found to explore and critique knowledge in a way comprehensively ignored in our national curriculum at 11-16. It is this deep learning and thinking that helps foster citizens who can think flexibly and be able to apply their thinking skills in innovative and creative ways.
Finally, I would ask a broader question: why are independent schools, and their students, given the privilege of choice, when our state schools are hampered by that behemoth that crushes all breadth and richness of curriculum provision – school league tables? I will admit it is my very personal bête noire – but whilst schools are forced to supposedly raise standards in a system which fosters a heightened narrowing of the curriculum to achieve ‘success’, how will we ever see the required diversity of curriculum provision needed for the future of our children? How can a system that actively promotes competition over collaboration, in a survival of the fittest to scramble up the league table to relative safety from the attack dogs of OFSTED, ever work in raising standards for all? With such a pervasive culture of distrust and narrow judgements, how will schools enjoy the freedoms to innovate and enrich? With such crushing judgements awaiting schools, it is no surprise when cheating ensues, when good practice is ditched at the alter of expediency. I am not condoning such corrosive behaviour that impacts negatively upon students, but I understand why it is going on when the conditions for growth and development for state schools are as fruitless as Osbourne’s scorched earth economic policy.
When will we corral the experts in the field of education to create an English qualification fit for purpose in preparing students for a changing world? When will we be led with courage and the foresight to let schools collaborate in local unison to create assessments fitting for our children and their futures? To bastardise a political phrase: we must be the change we seek. We must forge a vision of a future proof curriculum that we can be proud to teach and make Gove and his colleagues stand up and take notice. Parents, teachers, school leaders and unions must unite in this cause. It is crucial to the very future of our nation in a globalised world where economies of scale mean that Britain must create a highly innovative and creative knowledge economy. It begins with education. It begins with an evidence based curriculum fit for purpose. It begins with us.