Revision: Getting the why and the how

Over the last 10 years, the teaching profession has been exposed, and to some extent attempted to embed, the principles of effective revision. For many staff the names of Ebbinghaus, Dunlosky and Willingham have become familiar and their work and principles are now found in the ‘Golden Thread’ of the ITT Core Curriculum, the Early Career Framework and National Professional Qualification suite. 

However with this comes a note of caution – we are now in the position where “lethal mutations” are entirely possible. Dylan William used this phrase in his 2011 book ‘Embedded formative assessment’. It’s when essentially good ideas, based on evidence – such as the work of the above cited experts – can manifest in the classroom in such a way that they are ineffective. This is entirely possible with the concepts of retrieval practice or spaced learning for example, as part of a whole school initiative. If a school decides that every lesson in every subject has to do a particular task or activity, it has potential to lack the necessary subject specific expertise that is required for it to be truly effective – and improve learning.  

One possible reason for this is that there can be an assumption that all staff know what the principles or background to these ideas are. It is now a key part of teacher development, but there are many staff who are far less familiar with these ideas or have only heard about it at a whole school CPD without fully thinking about it’s application to their subject area. Or they are only familiar with the classroom manifestation – “I need to embed retrieval in my lesson.” without fully knowing the why, and the how for their subject. Arguably, it does take a subject and curriculum expert to work out exactly how best to organise spaced learning and effective retrieval. 

The combination of Cognitive Load Theory and Dual Coding are other ideas that are in danger of at times being reduced to ‘simplifying PowerPoints’ (not necessarily a bad thing) and adding icons from The Noun Project website to every resource. Ideas based on research, but potentially poorly implemented, generating a teacher time cost, and minimal learning impact. 

Part of the historic issue here is that schools and individual teachers are seduced by ‘fads’, which are seen as a quick fix. Some schools instructed all departments within their schools to produce uniform Knowledge Organisers. Again, a potentially powerful resource especially for useful revision techniques outlined by Dunlosky et al ie Practice Testing and Distributed Practice. However, would a science knowledge organiser work if it needs to fit a generic template that also needs to work for art? Uniformity might look great for the unsuspecting parent – or even inspector – but is it the most effective way of organising the information ready for review?

It is sadly understandable that some people look to a ‘quick fix’ after a particular Ofsted judgement, set of exam results or unsuccessful lesson observation – it’s a ‘what can I do?’ moment, rather than looking at the deeper ‘why?’ – why are students not effectively learning the material or developing the skills, and what can I do, over time to help them do this? Education doesn’t always afford the patience required for proper implementation. 

For me, principles such as retrieval practice – as a set of varied, adaptable, planned activities and tasks – are not a fad. They do need time and consideration. It is clear that they can be done more and less effectively – and they will look different in different subjects. The ‘why’ of this, and other strategies from Dunlosky et al, need to be discussed with teachers, students and parents. We can’t assume everyone understands, and understands within their own subject area. 

If we want to be truly effective and really embed these principles, we cannot let them mutate, become a fad, or be seen as just a quick win. It is important that teachers have the skill to consider their particular subject content and how best it is divided up and how questions are best posed to develop, not just simple factual knowledge but also higher order thinking (MCQs are very hard to get right for example!). They need to have suitable tools for that – and that may be using some of the available online tools. They need to balance time so not too much is dedicated to it, and neglect the new content that needs to be covered in the current lesson. 

My Top Tips for Getting It Right

  • Discussions at school level
    • What is the area of focus and why? (And don’t try and do it all at once – embed retrieval, demonstrate spaced practice, reduce cognitive load, add dual coding and produce knowledge organisers – all in the Spring Term!)
    • How can we provide the time and space for curriculum teams to consider what is needed at department level and create/adapt resources accordingly? (Implementation and culture shift takes time…)
    • When will we expect to see results? (And hence avoid it being the latest fad that everyone has to do for the next two terms, show it off on the Learning Walk week and never do again!)
  • Discussions at department level
    • What is the research and what does it like in our subject? 
    • How can we most effectively use our time to make the learning most successful?
    • When will we communicate this clearly with the students (and parents) – what we are doing and why?

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.