Thinking through revision

27 March 2018

Author: Chris Runeckles

Teachers up and down the country are starting to think, probably more than they should, about what their year 11 charges are doing when they are out of their sight and control.  We all desperately hope that firstly, they doing some revision, and secondly, that what they are doing is worthwhile.

This anxiety can lead to last-minute Hail Mary attempts at year 11 revision interventions.  I understand this compulsion completely.  I generally mirror it in my personal life at this time of year by joining legions of wide-eyed shoppers scanning cleared-out Easter egg aisles on Good Friday (resorting finally to whichever cartoon character is out of favour this year).  However, this time around, with year 11 intervention appearing on my list of responsibilities, I’ve attempted to be more methodical in my approach.

Y11 bookletOver the past couple of years at Durrington we have increasingly used the lessons from cognitive science to inform the interventions we put in place to support year 11 revision.  This year we have taken this a step further and attempted to fully immerse students, teachers and parents in the principles with the greatest weight of research evidence behind them.  This blog is not so much an explanation of the principles (although there will be a couple of signposts for where you can find these), but more of an explanation of how we’ve tried to implement the use of them.  Also, it does not cover all of the revision sessions, mentoring and other interventions running, purely how we tried to ensure our year 11s take an evidence-informed approach to their own revision.

The starting point was to find the best vehicle to deliver the ideas to our key stakeholders (by this I mean students, staff and parents/carers).  We decided the most user-friendly and accessible version was that produced by the Learning Scientists.  For those that have not seen their work, they define the six strategies for effective learning as: retrieval practice, spaced practice, elaboration, interleaving, concrete examples and dual coding.

There are many excellent research papers which similarly give an overview of the cognitive science principles (Dunlosky and Deans For Impact provide two of the best) or alternatively an in-depth discussion of one or two.

Learning SciHowever, if you want to communicate the ideas to stakeholders succinctly without the requirement to read an entire research paper, then the package the Learning Scientists put together is among the best.

I’m keen not to rose tint this blog too much, so one issue I would raise with the Learning Scientists’ work is that there is no obvious prioritising of the strategies.  However, when you look at the research evidence behind them, retrieval practice and spaced practiced stand out above the others as the most effective.  Therefore, we have had to ensure we have added this prioritisation into what we shared.

Above all else we have pursued the idea of multiple exposures with this intervention.  Through sharing the strategies in as many formats and forums as we could, we have attempted to make the strategies a common language that is understood by all.

The different methods we have used have been:

  • Year Group Assemblies:
  • On three occasions, one in year 10 and two in year 11 (first few weeks and post-mock).  These focused on dispelling myths around revision explaining both the strategies that have evidence for effectiveness, and those that do not.


  • Tutor time:
  • My colleague Fran Haynes and I visited all year 11 tutor times early during the autumn term to talk students through the six principles.  This was to avoid the assembly effect, where an idea simply washes over a year group without eliciting much thinking.
  • This was followed up with six PowerPoint presentations (one per principle) that we created for tutors to deliver.  We made sure these included three practical strategies for each principle.  These are accessible in a shared area for tutors.
  • We made sure all year 11 tutors had a poster of the strategies that could display in their rooms.


  • Revision booklets:
  • We have produced these twice.  Once 10 weeks before the mock exams and once 10 weeks before the final summer exams.  They contain a summary of all the principles, a blank calendar for students to write a spaced practice revision timetable and any relevant dates or information on revision sessions.  Tutors work on these with students and I carry out drop-in observations to monitor the use of them.


  • INSET:
  • We felt it was essential staff fully understood each of the principles so I completed a whole-school INSET presentation which focused on the idea of “what this is/what this isn’t” for each of the principles.  We wanted to avoid staff (through not fault of their own) giving a misinterpreted version of the strategies to the students.


  • Parent support evenings:
  • During the autumn term we ran an evening for parents/carers at which we explained the principles and how they could be adapted for use between parent/carer and child to support revision at home.  This was attended by over 130 parent/carers.  We reran the session a few weeks ago with the caveat that it was a direct replication, however very few parents attended so we probably wouldn’t do this second session again.


  • Working with departments to plan revision sessions:
  • We worked directly with certain curriculum areas to plan revision sessions that incorporated the principles and at INSET the PE department fed back on how they had done this.


  • Surveying the students:
  • Due to the number of variables at work evaluating the effectiveness of this intervention is difficult, however following the mocks we did survey the students and asked them which (if any) of the strategies they had used and their views on the usefulness of them.  The encouraging part was 78% of year 11 said they had used at least one of the principles with retrieval practice the most popular.  44% did say they did not find them useful, but as I’ve been telling them, we are often a poor judge of our own learning!  The full results are shown below:


Alongside all of this have been the corridor conversations, in-lesson plugging and general work of the Research School which has helped to give the strategies status and credence.

It would be easy to say the true measure of the success of this intervention will come through the GCSE results in the summer.  However, we will be unable to separate out this intervention from all the other things year 11 have been doing.  What consoles me though is that the research has largely been done on these strategies, therefore the onus is less on proving the effectiveness of the strategies and more on mobilising their use.

What we will do once year 11 finally put their pens down for the summer, is review each element, discuss and tweak and go again next year.  Year 10 work is already well under way.

Posted on 27 March 2018
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