Guest Post: The Revision Revisionists

Matt Jenkinson writes about revision, discusses whether there really is a wrong way or a right way, and shares some tips…

Now that we’ve all (hopefully) had a bit of a break over the Easter weekend, and considering the surfeit of material on the matter recently in the national press, this is an apposite time to ponder the ever-vexing question of revision. Just before Easter the former Headmaster of Harrow and current chairman of the Independent Schools Council, Barnaby Lenon, made the not totally unreasonable suggestion that the top marks in public exams would not all go to the most intelligent candidates, but also to many of those who put in the revision hours over Easter. Seven hours per day, he suggested, was a decent amount of time.

Responses to this suggestion varied from the ‘quite right’ers who witnessed their teenagers putting in seven hours a day without any problem, to the commentators who argued passionately that seven hours a day would compound those teenagers’ mental health issues. Pupils sitting at their desks for this length of time, argued Libby Purves in The Times, meant:

No church, egg-hunts or charity runs; no time to reconnect with friends from other schools, join family walks and slow conversational meals, amuse younger siblings, spot sexism and homophobia in Friends on Netflix, earn a few quid as a pub washer-up, attempt bakery, get out the skateboard, rehearse an act, start a petition or try a cool new look. No time to notice irrelevant things which set off trains of thought. No scope for lying on your bed lost in a novel unrelated to the curriculum.

Lenon’s suggested timetable only covered 9am-6pm – with a handful of half-hour breaks – so there would be some time in the evening for some of the above (perhaps instead of meandering around Facebook [if they still do that] or Instagram); it would also be for a relatively short amount of time. Perhaps try out the ‘cool new look’ in the summer? Read the novel just before going to sleep?

The reality, as is so often the case in education, lies somewhere in the middle, with the best parts of each suggestion worth taking on board, and the less useful worth discarding. Perhaps we should be spending less time arguing about how much to revise and more time thinking about how to revise? Here are some ideas:

• Work backwards. Make a list of the topics you need to cover in each subject, make a list of those areas where little extra work is needed and a list of those that will require some more time and attention. If in doubt, try mind-mapping each topic. It will soon become clear which topics lead to a page covered in ink, and those where the paper is pretty much blank.

• Put together a timetable in which the topics requiring extra work feature more prominently than those that require a little. Don’t totally discard the latter, though, as all topics will need to ‘tick over’.

• Which brings us onto the vexed issue of timing. How much is enough/too much/too little? What the Lenon/Purves debate above doesn’t take into account is that this will depend on each individual pupil. Some will be lucky enough to absorb huge amounts of information easily, and then go off to frolic among the daffodils. Others will find it more of a slog. The way you work it out is by trying it out and then pushing yourself a little. Hard work will not always be pleasurable in the short term; the longer-term rewards will be. Do a little, a lot. Chip away at topics rather than going head-long and tiring yourself out. A morning session, an afternoon session and perhaps an early-evening session should promote a healthy habit of revising, while still leaving enough time for relaxing, reading for pleasure, getting some fresh air, etc. The exact length of those sessions will, as I say, depend on the requirements and capacity of each individual.

• As the exams approach, it may become clear that the number of topics to cover is outstripping the amount of time (so far) scheduled for revision; if that is the case, the revision hours will need to be increased, within reason.

• Once a timetable has been made, stick to it. For the wrong way to approach revision timetables, listen to Arnold J. Rimmer’s experience in Red Dwarf:

• Find a way to learn/revise that works for each individual pupil and stick to that too. By the stage of public exams, most pupils will have a good idea what has worked for them in the past: mind-maps, revision cards, bulletpoints, online quizzes …

• Use sample papers, or past papers, to get a sense of what the final exam will look like. Double-check with teachers for any curriculum/format changes.

• While the core body of knowledge for an exam should not change in any significant way as a course progresses, it is always worth adding new ideas as and when they come up, either in lessons or in discussions with friends or at home, in the run-up to an exam.

• As the exams get closer, distil knowledge so the essential elements are easily-accessible (and ideally portable). There is no point wasting huge amounts of time fussing with reams of paper to find the sections you’ve forgotten; boil topics down to key words/formulae and make sure they are easily to hand.

• Make sure that revision remains active, not passive. Relaxing music, a warm room, and a comfortable sofa will probably send you to sleep rather than help you learn anything.

• Try not to see revision as a chore, and back up that positive mentality as a family. If it is approached positively, the time won’t drag and the whole process will be a lot less painless.

• Enlist the help of family: parents/siblings can help test vocabulary, formulae, dates, whatever. Again, being an active and positive part of the process will help limit pupils’ sense of completing a seemingly unrelenting and uphill task alone.

• As the exams approach, keep a calm and regular routine; finish revision with a comfortable gap before bedtime (stop the brain whirring all night); eat a sensible diet (avoid artificial stimulants); get some fresh air; keep up a reasonable amount of non-academic pursuits, but don’t let them take priority in the run-up to exams. There’s plenty of time for them after.

• ‘Play your own game’. Don’t be put off by what others are saying. They will almost certainly be misrepresenting how much/little they have revised or how much/little they know. Ignore them and focus on your own performance.

• Once the exam is finished, do not perform a post-mortem. It’s done. Over. You gain nothing from checking an answer you’ve got wrong except reduction in your self-esteem. Just press on to the next.

With appropriate preparation, by the day of the exam, success shouldn’t be a question of luck … but good luck!

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Categories: Guest Post.


  1. jillberry102

    Lots of useful tips, here – thanks for sharing.

    When I was a head, I used to advise those approaching GCSE and A level exams to set aside a number of days in the Easter holiday to spend on revision – but not every day, because they needed a break, too. I hoped that, if they were systematic about it, then on the days when they weren’t revising they would be able to rest and refresh and ideally not even THINK about schoolwork.

    But on the revision days, I suggested they divided the day into three segments, say 10am-1pm, 2pm-5pm, 6pm to 9pm, and that they chose to work in just TWO of them – so six hours in two substantial blocks, with only short breaks – perhaps 5-10 minutes – in every hour. So six hours a day maximum, and not every day. As you say, it’s what they do in that time that matters most, but being methodical and disciplined is a good start. The worst option is when you’re not revising but you feel anxious about it so you’re not relaxing either!

    Thanks again.

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