5 Steps for Effective Revision + Activity Ideas

Revision, revision and more revision…. with exams around the corner, teachers are busy planning and innovating revision activities. Meanwhile, pupils are busy revising (at least, in theory; some are definitely actually-understanding-for-the-first-time) before the daunting and the anticipating become the done and dusted.

My understanding of learning and the examination process obtained through experience and research of education academia can be condensed into a five-step process that I share with my pupils: read + understand; distill the key points; practice retrieving said key points; refine exam technique; apply to exam questions. I elaborate on these points in the form advice that I handed out to my exam groups this year:

(Feel free to copy, adapt and share with your pupils)


5 Steps for Effective Revision

 For every topic you revise, use these 5 steps to make sure your revision is effective

  1. Read and understand

Use various sources – revision guide, bitesize, exercise books, online videos, and peers – to understand the concepts and ideas. You fully understand a concept when you can fully explain it to someone else.

  1. Distil key points

Summarise the main ideas you need to understand and remember. This could be notes, mind-maps, diagrams or flashcards.

  1. Test yourself using retrieval to memorise

It’s extremely important that you recall the main ideas without prompts. How much can you explain and for how long, without looking at your notes? Pretending to teach, flashcards and writing down your own explanations (all without prompts) are the most effective way to do this.

All the psychology research about this says that retrieval (or recalling something from memory) is the most effective way to remember something. So test yourself again and again by pretending to explain something out loud, then checking to see if you are right. Even if you are wrong, this process will help you remember the content better when you do check the right answer.

  1. Refine exam technique

Before you answer exam questions, make sure your exam technique is up to scratch. Know what is expected of you for each command word. Do you know how you should answer questions differently if it begins ‘Describe’ compare to if it begins with ‘Explain’? Be clear with what you will do each time you see a graph, table or diagram. Have a clear strategy for 6 markers.

  1. Exam questions to apply learning

Now that you are confident that you understood and have memorised the key information, and you are clear about what is expected of you for various exam questions, you are now ready to apply all of this knowledge. Try some exam questions under exam conditions. Once you have given it your absolute best shot, do not mark you answer straight away – look at your notes and see if you would add/change anything. Then use the mark-scheme and be harsh! Only award yourself the mark if you have written what is on the mark-scheme.

I would suggest using these 5 steps in a cycle, focussing on one small topic at a time e.g. plant hormones or genetic engineering.


Revision activities that apply these principles:

I am sure there are lots of activities out there that teachers and pupils use all of the time e.g. flashcards, quick quizzes, game-show style lessons etc. Here are some activities that I have devised, adapted from other teaching practices that I have observed.

  1. Hexagons

The Idea: cut out hexagons from flexible whiteboards. Pupils write only key words/phrases from the subject they are revising on separate hexagons. They then arrange the hexagons in a meaningful order. For example, each touching hexagon must link those two words together. For example ‘pathogen’ and ‘vaccination’ might touch because ‘Vaccinations protect people from diseases caused by pathogens’, or that ‘Vaccinations contain dead/inactive pathogens’. Both of these words could be adjacent to ‘symptoms’ because ‘vaccinations allow our white blood cells to produce antibodies against pathogens without the pathogen causing symptoms.’ The best way to do this is for pupils to work in pairs and explain/justify their choices to each other verbally. This should be followed up with writing a sentence/paragraph. A quicker, more effective way to assess learning from this is to do a quick quiz, where pupils write answers in full sentences to knowledge-based questions.

The Benefits: The greatest value from this idea is twofold: firstly, it uses oracy as a bridge to elicit more academic language. Secondly, it help pupils organise ideas to improve understanding. These work excellently for helping pupils to use key words and their definitions, make links between ideas, make judgements about the importance of ideas, help pupils sequence ideas logically… the list is limited only by the creativity with which you instruct pupils to use the simple resource required.

Furthermore, this activity can be differentiated easily: making sentences vs. paragraphs; giving a list of words to link vs. asking pupils to come up with the list; giving a list of words that link together in an obvious way vs. a list from various topics with links that may not be as explicit.

Below are images that exemplifies their use (I don’t show the oracy part – but the discussion preceded the writing): 1 Highlight key words; 2 Arrange hexagons; 3 Say it then write it.


2. 3 Part Revision Booklets

To follow the above 5 step cycle, this particular form of revision booklets are an idea that I adapted from some time I spent observing science lessons in King Solomon Academy.

The Idea: The first page of the booklet is a series of knowledge questions that pupils can test each other on. The answers are on page two. I always insist that pupils ask each other all of the questions in pairs. E.g. Partner A will ask B all of the questions. B will answer, and A will check the answers + give feedback. Then B will ask A the same questions, with only B allowed to look at the answers give feedback this time. Pupils are always initially confused as to why they should have to answer questions they just read the answer to. They realise why when it’s their turn to be tested and they cannot remember or articulate an answer. The second point is that this helps pupils give each other feedback accurately, since the answer is on the next page.

Once both partners have been tested, pupils answer exam questions that help pupils apply the same content that was tested. It is often useful to add questions to page one about exam technique relevant to the questions chosen for this section of the booklet.

Page 3 of the booklet (between the Q & A, and the exam questions + mark scheme) should be a reflection sheet, which pupils fill in after answering and marking the exam questions. It is about the area they lost marks on, and what they have learned from it. It might be a fact, an exam technique or topic they need to fully revise to understand.

The Benefits: Embedding key ideas into memory works best through repeated low-stakes retrieval and feedback. Aside from helping to embed learning further, the genius of the immediate application to exam questions is that it helps to reveal areas pupil struggle on that are not necessarily about knowing the facts, since we can be sure (or more confident) that they have the knowledge. Therefore, any mistakes made on exam questions are more likely as as result of:

  • Not understanding what the question is asking
  • Mis-interpreting the question or confusing command words
  • Not knowing when to apply what knowledge
  • Lack of skill e.g. interpreting data
  • Knowing the facts but not understanding the wider concept those facts are part of

You can use this to be the focus of the feedback.

The booklets take time to make, but once made, they allow pupils to get on with revision effectively and independently. If using them in the classroom, you can circulate to ensure feedback given is accurate and figure out what pupils are struggling with to inform your planning/discussion with the class.


I’d be happy to hear if you used these or if you adapted these ideas. Did they work in your context?



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