Rethinking Revision with Andy Lewis

rethink revision

“…there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know…” 

(United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 2002)

The Latin origin of the word revision suggests the student must “look again”. Sadly, we know that just ‘looking’ at work again is of little use. However, I’d go further – the whole concept of revision needs a rethink. The how, when and why all need to be addressed and perhaps given a rebrand. I frequently tell my students that with regular review*, revision fundamentally changes.

Unknown Unknowns

For some students, they only realise what it is that they don’t know when they are sat in the exam hall. United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted that these “unknown unknowns” cause the biggest problems [in war]. With an ad hoc, unplanned approach to revision, students will naturally gravitate to the things they know well (their “known knowns”) – it makes you feel good! 

Using regular testing as a method of review enables students to work out their “known unknowns” (things they don’t know), as well as giving them a boost with their “unknown knowns” (the things they didn’t know they knew!)

It is also a call to a systematic plan of revision – every part of the syllabus needs to be covered in the review schedule. A specification checklist works really well for this – Oxford Revision Guides have these on their contents pages. I usually suggest a rule of 3 – date each spec point and when you test and review – and aim to revisit everything on 3 occasions during the 2-year course. 


Many students create their beautiful, colour-coded “revision timetable” around a month before the exams. They are then trying to fit in a huge amount in a short window, creating a high stress environment where a day cannot be missed. 

I argue that a review timetable should begin from the start of the course. Where are you going to build in time to go back over the first topic while studying the second? As the teacher I ensure that I structure homework and assessment in this way (i.e. review of Year 10 topics for Year 11 homework), but students need to form this habit to become regular reviewers. 

I insist on the Cornell Note Taking method1 for all students – as this forces them to review their work on at least 2 occasions after the lesson. They need to go back to create their summaries, and again to write their cues. 

A Culture of Review

Revision has traditionally been a reaction to an assessment point. However, cultivating a change in mindset can help students not only feel less anxious and stressed about exams, but provide effective study habits for lifelong learning. To ensure maximum recall on a whole exam specification, not only does a clear curriculum need to be planned out, so does its constant review. This helps build connections, develop deep understanding and allow clear and critical thinking around topics. 

Top Tips

  • Ensure a positive approach to testing via low stakes and regular identification of “unknown unknowns”
  • Promote clear structures so that coverage is systematic and inbuilt throughout the course
  • Use tools such as Cornell Note Taking to habit form review.

*Review also comes from the Latin revidere but has come to mean something slightly different – to re-examine, or to discuss critically

1Please find more information on the Cornell Note Taking system here

Andy Lewis rethink revision

Andy Lewis is a Deputy Head Teacher at Bonaventure’s Catholic school in East London. He is the author of a number of books, including the Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies A (9-1): Catholic Christianity with Islam and Judaism Revision Guide, regular blogger and expert speaker at a range of regional and national teaching events.

Browse more RE blog posts here.