It is exam results week and teachers all over England will be picking through the remnants of their students’ results – their successes and failures. My thoughts come to one of the mainstay strategies that correlate with exam success. That dull and nagging pain: revision.

We know that a world of knowledge is now within reach of almost all students – a mere click and scroll away. Access to revision materials has never been easier. Teachers and schools are producing revision packs, Twitter accounts, Google Docs, parent workshops, revision blogs and special revision days and even more. All with the whole-hearted intent of getting students revising better.

But, crucially, are they getting any better at revision? Or are we simply trying to convince ourselves that our hard work is paying off?

A steady trickle of valuable research has emerged about the most effective revision strategies. Researchers, like Dunlovsky et al., have summarised the best of what is known from cognitive science research – see here. But is this information penetrating the classroom door, and even more importantly, do the students, know, understand and believe this stuff? Back away from the highlighters and stop re-reading you can hear me cry!

As teachers we know more and more about revision and effective learning. Our students have assemblies left, right and centre aisle, rammed with blockbuster-quality revision advice: marshmallow self-control, tomato timers, metacognition and bulging mindsets, and the rest of the notions and narratives related to sitting down and sticking to some hard revision.

What could go wrong you implore. As we do more and more work the picture is surely mirrored by an increasingly savvy and self-aware mass of students?

The research, and the students, say no.

An intriguing survey, covering a full cross-section of society (including students of different age groups) has put a dampener on notions that we are changing the all too human habits of our students – see here.

This survey, from the Bjork lab, shows that people don’t revise because the teacher advised them to do so in a certain way. They choose their revision based on what is coming up next. Deadlines rule. Few understand the learning value of self-quizzing and self-testing. Although more than half agreed they had been taught how to study and schedule their revision, only half that number admitted to actually doing so. A stinkingly low quarter of the entire sample. Depressing results.

So where do we go from here? If we are disappointed by exam results this week, can we do anything more to remedy the issue? Is the answer more revision sessions, more resources, revision packs or electronic gizmos? Or did our approach to revision this year buck the grand and make the difference? How can we know?

Of course, there is nothing better than plain great teaching, but perhaps a related answer is whittling away at something more intrinsic in the hearts and minds of our students. We know that, like good learning and good revision, this process is long-term. But it is surely worth undertaking.

The Bjork lab research indicates that students possessing a ‘growth mindset’, and the attendant grit, perseverance and understanding that learning requires effort, revise that little bit better than those with a ‘fixed mindset’ (Carol Dweck is now famous for her memorable mindset dichotomy) The survey showed that growth mindset respondents better manage their own learning; they’re more likely to understand the value of self-testing; and they’re more likely to restudy old course materials (students are notoriously bad at judging what they have and haven’t learnt). Hardly surprising results you may say, but valuable knowledge all the same.

Of course, there are no quick fixes. Students with a growth mindset still have bad learning habits and still don’t revise half as well we teachers would hope. But, perhaps, due to their view that ability isn’t set in stone, they are more receptive to learning about how to revise better. Then they are more likely to go and do it with a fraction more determination and stickability. The margins are fine, but an aggregation of such marginal gains could prove significant for the success of our students.

As ever, such ‘answers‘ are complex, but not beyond our imagining and implementation (and free of charge). We need to give students the tools and processes to revise better, sharing with students the best evidence, whilst convincing them that long-term learning is more effortful than cramming, but of far greater value. Crucially, we also need to help our students cultivate the right mindset to provide the conditions to apply the most effective revision tools.

Achieving such a cultural change in a school towards how to learn, synchronized with communication with parents at home, and, most importantly, triggering the significant change in the minds of students, is a long-term pursuit. I write this blog before the school year even starts, with the notion that a year will be a short time for those sitting exams next summer. Improvement will take a marathon revision period and not a cramming session, but the rewards would be worthwhile. Let’s not leave it until it is too late.


Related reading:

I have made my own attempt at a summary of some the best revision research here.

I have written about the value of the ‘testing effect’ here.