Teaching History revision

It’s that time of year again! We’ve made it to half term, and we all know what that means. Exam season is nearly upon us. You might have finished teaching your course and are planning revision sessions, so here is a list of strategies and ways to overcome some of the obstacles we face when trying to get our students to revise for their History exams.

Teach them how to revise

We hammer home the need for revision, set homework with vague instructions ‘to revise’, and berate students when they underperform on mocks as they ‘clearly haven’t revised’!

Therein lies one of the biggest barriers to our students when tasked with completing revision; they just don’t know how or where to start. We need to teach them a range of strategies and techniques so they can try them and see what works best.

You could put a revision workshop on, plan sessions around a particular technique, or utilise lesson time to help students to create their own revision resources.

Even if you provide revision guides for your students, you must show them how to use them. The OUP AQA ones are brilliant, but once you show students how they can be used, they become invaluable.

Filling in the gaps

Something that baffles me every year is that students often revise topics that they’re already secure with and avoid ones they’re less sure of – this may be a confidence issue, but it completely defeats the object of revision!

To avoid this, I’ve given students Personal Learning Checklists for each unit which break down the spec. Students assess their confidence with each topic and question style. They are then directed to start revising the areas they are weakest on, rather than just picking to study something they like and find easy.

Little and often

One thing that really worries me is the pressure students put themselves under – especially high achievers. Comments like “I revised for three hours solid last night but nothing’s going in!” are commonplace. It’s no wonder – three hours of solid study is enough to numb anyone’s brain!

To show students how to break down revision, one year, we gave students a ’12 days of Hist-mas Advent Calendar’, with two minute tasks scheduled every couple of days during the school holidays. This year we’ve given ‘100 day countdown calendars’ with a quiz question for each day in the run up to exams, and some longer ten minute tasks added throughout.

Another strategy our faculty have started using this month is ‘Pepper Pots’. We have lots of key quiz questions that students find tough to remember from each unit in a jar. When a class is packed up, or needs a quick boost in a double lesson, we get our Pepper Pots out and ‘pepper’ the class with quick fire recall questions.

Q Matrix

Getting students to revise together effectively is a great way to encourage them to get excited about revision – there’s an element of competition and teaching someone else about a topic is a fantastic way of making knowledge stick.

You could get students to use Personal Learning Checklists to set each other a list of questions on topics they struggle with. To make this constructive (and to up the ante in terms of competition), I use a QuestionMatrix (or Q Matrix). This is a grid with words along the top and left hand side which helps students to create meaningful questions that they can use to guide their revision.  They use words along the top first, and add a word from the left hand side to give them a question stem. The words further right and lower down on the grid make more difficult and open ended questions. I add in ‘points’ to my Q Matrix to give the task a competition element; the 2 point question stems are simple recall questions, like ‘who is’, the more complex ones get 10 points, as they ask questions like: ‘how might’.

Students enjoy writing questions for themselves or their peers, and for students who struggle to write notes without a structure, this is a really good way of organising their revision. They also enjoy trying to outdo each other by answering higher tariff questions. 

Students enjoy writing questions for themselves which is a really good way of organising their revision.
This is a really good way of teaching how to organise history revision.

Throwback Quiz

At our school, there is always a recall task to complete as students enter. To help knowledge embed itself into students’ long term memory, we use ‘throwback’ questions from previous units or topics. One teacher in our department always has three questions: one from last week, one from last term, and one from last year – if students can answer all three correctly, they get points.

Not only does this start lessons promptly, but is a way of constantly revisiting knowledge from previous units.

Ready, SPED-y, GO!

To encourage our students to remember as many specific details as possible, we use SPED – Statistics, People, Events, Dates. A great way of getting students to record these, (and enabling them to condense a unit on one piece of A3) are ‘lotus’ diagrams. If you’re bored of mind maps and index cards – you’ll love these.

This is a diagram where students can break down a unit into 8 topics, and write key SPED around the outside. My year 11s managed to revise the whole the Conflict and Tension unit on one diagram in less than an hour!

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We place so much emphasis on content when preparing students for the final furlong, that we often forget how brilliant exam drills are. Doing past questions or writing your own questions that MIGHT come up in the real thing helps hone exam technique and also aids retention by getting students to apply everything they’ve revised.

This can be done in class or for homework, but we offer [email protected] breakfast sessions once a week. Students come at 8am, and are given an 8 mark question. We have a quick chat about content they’ll include and remind them which structure to use; then they do it in timed conditions. We plan questions based on common misconceptions, so hopefully we’re filling some gaps!

8 markers only take ten minutes, so we’re all done by 8.15. You can mark them on the spot and give immediate feedback before sending students off to their first lesson, already high on success from smashing a question before the day has even started. The bonus is that you’ve got time for a cuppa and a chat before you start your own day.

Really, the key fundamentals for revision are: show students how to do it and provide them with the tools, plan provision based on common misconceptions, reward students when they are successful, and remind them: little and often.




Laura Killeen is a History teacher in a secondary school in Wolverhampton. She is part of the Oxford AQA GCSE History author team. Follow her on Twitter for ideas and resources!