The Perse School

Every cloud has a revision silver lining

I always remember my Oxford tutor telling me there was a correlation between the weather and the number of first class degrees.  In years with a cold and wet spring undergraduates remained at their desks and in the library.  Bad years for weather were good years for study with the number of firsts rising accordingly.  Conversely balmy spring weather distracted undergraduates from their revision, and whilst they may have attempted to revise outside in the sunshine, such ‘al fresco’ study was less effective.

Meteorologically, March 2013 has been a miserable month with below average temperatures and days of grey gloom.  This will be a late spring, and the weather appears unlikely to really warm up until May.  Multiple cricket sweaters will be needed for the start of the season as cold north easterly winds lower temperatures and spirits.  What will be bad news for gardeners, BBQ enthusiasts, and followers of summer sport will be good news for GCSE, AS and A level candidates.  Inclement weather is ideal for revision; below average temperatures keep pupils at their desks, whilst a late spring will depress pollen levels for longer – easing the examination plight of hay fever sufferers.

This Easter students should take advantage of the bad weather and crack on with their revision.  Revision is a cumulative process and the more times a topic is revised the better it is remembered.  Early revision allows knowledge to seep into the longer term memory where linkages are made and a deeper understanding achieved.  In contrast, last minute revision fills the short term memory with facts but limits insight.  Over the years I have found that students who ‘cram’ in the hours prior to an exam are more likely to regurgitate just-revised material in a stream of consciousness rather than answer the question set in a considered manner.

Effective revision requires self-understanding, a suitable plan, a good lifestyle and some incentives.

We all learn best in different ways, and to maximise the effectiveness of revision students need to know their preferred learning pathway.  Many Perse students will have completed self assessments which indicate whether they are visual, auditory, verbal or kinesthetic learners but there are also a multitude of online questionnaires which can help identify preferred learning pathways.  Some students learn best using visual methods and thus should base their revision around spider diagrams and flow charts; others prefer verbal routes and should therefore summarise notes onto cards or ‘teach’ revision topics to friends and family.  Kinesthetic leaners need to be active in their revision; making models to explain volcanos, or integrating revision with household chores by learning the French vocabulary for kitchen utensils whilst washing up.  Auditory learners should listen to online revision podcasts, and make their own broadcasts to play back.

Central to any effective revision strategy is a revision timetable.  Most students should aim to revise for up to seven hours a day, with each hour broken into 45 minutes of revision, five minutes of testing to check understanding, and 10 minutes downtime to let everything sink into the mind.  It is important that all aspects of a subject are covered equally, and that students do not avoid topics they find difficult.  The weakest areas need to be targeted first and be regularly revisited.

There has been much in the press recently about the teenage brain and how it does not function well in the morning.  Some students certainly prefer to revise later in the day, and some like burning the midnight oil.  Whilst effective revision is likely to occur when the brain is most receptive, it is important not to get into a different ‘time zone’ during revision.  Public exams are sat between 9.00am and 5.00pm; it is thus essential that pupils are used to working well during these hours.  Students who become nocturnal revising to the small hours and lying in until late in the morning will have body clocks out of sync with the exam timetable.  This will cost them marks.

The brain, like any other organ in the body, needs to be treated well to perform at its best.  Effective revision thus requires adequate sleep (at least eight hours), regular physical exercise, and a well-balanced diet high in fruit and vegetables.  Good hydration is essential.

Revising for 7 hours a day this Easter whilst rain or even snow falls from leaden skies may not sound like fun.  It is thus important to incentivise revision with treats for tasks completed.  Days off are essential to preserve spirits and prevent fatigue from setting in.  Preparing for exams is akin to running a marathon; whilst a good start is essential it is important to ‘pace’ the revision programme.  Marathon runners need their coaches, and in the revision race it is essential that parents and teachers are on hand to provide encouragement, support and guidance to students.  Students need to know that their teachers and parents believe in them, but they also need to know that revision timetables and arrangements will be enforced.

There is good news on the horizon.  Having accurately predicted a long cold winter, I am forecasting some hot weather for July and August just in time for the post exam celebrations and something we can all look forward to.

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  1. 26 Mar 2013

    Ed Elliott, Head

    The total amount of revision that any student will need to undertake will vary according to prior knowledge, target grades, subject skills etc. As such it is not possible to generalise. However, in my experience 7 hours per day is the maximum duration of effective revision that can be sustained over a number of weeks. If students are working for 7 hours per day, they will need to take days off in order to keep themselves fresh, pace their revision, and let the memorory assimilate revised material. There is truth in the old BT advert that we should work smarter not harder, but it is also true that one of the commonest causes of exam under-achievement is not enough revision. In many subjects what you put in is what you get out, and hours of revision do pay dividends especially in subjects with a high factual content and/or vocabulary requirement.
  2. 21 Mar 2013

    Rohan Vithayathil

    Whilst we are able to reason and explain for several different techniques or patterns of revision for different brains, we still give no explanation behind the idea of revising for 'at least x hours' per day. With any core understanding of the subject a student should not need time targets; they will be clear on what they must get through and achieve - and when it's done this needs to be revisited tomorrow, and in a week. Not in the same hour. In the world of work, 9 to 5 is not an excuse for zero productivity. And if you lock yourself into a timetable on a lost cause, that is what you get. What gets done is what gets marks.
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