Adam Boxer, one of the authors of the new Oxford Revise: Revision and Practice series, explains how its Knowledge, Retrieval, Practice model leads to truly effective revision.
If you’re anything like me, one of the questions you’ll be asked the most by students is how they should revise. Most students and parents don’t really know how to do it. So how can we help?
We often hear (and might even find ourselves saying) things like “there is no best way to revise – it’s about what works for you.” This is really common advice, but it’s not very helpful. Actually, cognitive scientists have found that when students spend time re-reading their notes, highlighting them or even summarising them, they tend to remember very little afterwards.
When writing the new Oxford Revise: Revision & Practice series, we took a three step approach: knowledge, retrieval and practice. Here I’ll go into detail about what each of those steps means, but it’s important to remember that all three work together to make sure revision is effective.
First is knowledge. How well does the student understand the material that they then need to learn? This is the stage in the process where they should be saying, “Yes, that makes sense now.” To help with this, we have made Knowledge Organisers. We’ve made sure that these are really clear and easy to understand but also concise – we’ve cut out anything that students don’t need to know for their exams. We’ve then taken all of that stuff and organised it, making sure that it all fits together and flows from one idea to the next. This means that when student are studying the organiser, they start to learn the “bigger picture” – not just a few facts that aren’t connected to each other, but how the science is deeply connected and tied together.
I said above that reading notes isn’t a good revision strategy and that’s true: revision is about making sure things are available in your memory, and simply reading the Knowledge Organiser won’t help with that. But the knowledge stage must happen before students start to revise. If you don’t understand the material, then you will never be able to remember it easily. It just doesn’t work. So students should use the Knowledge Organiser first to make sure that they understand everything and how it all fits together, and then they can start trying to make sure they can remember it by moving on to the retrieval section.
Cognitive scientists have found that the best way to remember things is by “retrieving” them for yourself. “Retrieving” is like “fetching” – it’s when you have to go deep into your memory to try and “fetch” an idea. Let’s take a simple example: an address. If you write down a new address and highlight it or just read it, you won’t remember it tomorrow. But if you look at the address, then cover it with a piece of paper and try and “fetch” that memory for yourself, then you are more likely to remember it tomorrow. Repeat the retrieval tomorrow, one week later and then a month later and you’re even more likely to remember it as time goes on. That’s retrieval.
For Oxford Revise, we’ve written really short questions and answers after each Knowledge Organiser. If a student takes a piece of paper and covers up the answers, and then tries to write down the correct answers from memory, the ideas should stick in their head much better over a long time, and they will be more likely to remember them.
Students can also do retrieval practice with the Knowledge Organiser. After reading a box, they can cover it up with a piece of paper and then retrieve everything they can remember about that box by writing it down on the piece of paper. This can seem difficult at first, but they’ll soon get the hang of it and start remembering more than they thought was possible.
It’s also a good idea to spread retrieval practice over time, so when you come to Chapter 6 in the book, for example, you’ll find that we’ve put questions from Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 in there too. This is a great way to make sure that students are strengthening their memories of the whole course, not just the bit they’re currently studying.
Rather than just doing the retrieval questions once, encourage students to come back the next day and try them again with a blank piece of paper. It’s important to actually write down the answers as otherwise our brains can trick us into thinking we know them when we don’t really.
Once your students know those answers really well, they can move on to the final stage: practice. Here, we’ve written an absolute ton of questions for students to practise with. The style of the questions is similar to what they can expect in the exam, so they are a great way to start preparing. The calculator and conical flask icons show whether students need to use maths or practical skills in their answer, and the triangle icon shows the level of challenge.
So, what’s the best way to revise? Start by understanding and knowing the material, move on to doing retrieval by questions and answers, and then progress to more exam-based practice questions. It may feel at times like it’s going really badly, but it works – the science says so!
Adam Boxer is a Chemistry teacher and Head of Science. He is a founder of the #CogSciSci movement, which sees teachers bringing the principles and practices of cognitive science to their everyday teaching. He is a regular speaker at large educational conferences including PiXL and ASE and one of the authors of Oxford Revise: Revision and Practice for AQA GCSE Sciences.