Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Effective revision sessions

Yesterday I ran a revision session as I often do for my students before their A level exams kick in. Usually it's a fairly dry affair, what-do-you-know, what-don't-you-know (with raised eyebrows hinting at the "and why don't you know it yet?"-ness of the latter). It's never really something I've got my head round how to do well. There must be an answer, but I'm damned if I ever found it. This year, inspired by a particularly brilliant NQT in the department, I decided to try and do things differently. Apparently, according to the students, it was brilliant. This is what we did...

First, I stopped assuming the student know HOW to revise. We went right back to basics, getting them to think about their state of health as they approach their revision tasks.

  • We talked about getting the body fit every day: Fit body = oxygenated brain = more effective learning
  • We talked about the importance of good sleep patterns, getting early nights, and switching off well before they went to bed. Most of them seemed to have no idea that being plugged in to the telly, the computer, Facebook etc just before bed meant their brains were still free-wheeling for a good while after they stopped.
  • We talked about the importance of fuel: Eating a balanced diet, with plenty of vegetables and fruit, and complex carbohydrates for slow release of energy. We talked about eating little and often while you revise so that your body isn't sluggishly dividing its energies between the brain and the digestion. We talked about water to hydrate the brain.
  • We talked about the quick energy releases of caffeine and sugar and sweets, and how the come-down is worse than the temporary benefits gained, and leads to lack of focus.
  • We talked about deep breathing to oxygenate the brain: We started with three deep in breaths, and we showed them that deep breathing is in the diaphragm, not the chest. We let those three deep breaths out as slowly as possible (record was 40 secs for one constant out-breath - pretty impressive). We followed this with three deep in breaths and let them out as forcefully and quickly as possible. They could feel more awareness, more focus (and at nine in the morning, more awake than most of them had felt all year apparently!). We explained about the importance of oxygenating the blood and the brain for peak performance.
After a while they started to see that we were in training: We were athletes, in it for the long haul, and we needed to get ourselves ready.

Next we looked at the environment for revision: Getting rid of anything extraneous, anything on the desk apart from what is required. We looked at creating an environment which isn't comfortable, on the basis that comfy and cozy equals sleepy. So the whole session was conducting without sitting down at all during the active bits, with fresh air through open windows so it wasn't too warm to concentrate, and we did the whole session in music-less silence, apart from our own discussions.

And finally we talked about sucking lemons. Old trick I think my Dad taught me before my A levels: Sets the teeth on edge, horrible taste, but my lord does it concentrate the mind!

Apparently, nobody had ever spoken to our students about this stuff, about how to get yourself in optimal condition to learn. That surprised me, but I liked the way they responded to being treated more like Olympic athletes than teaching fodder. Their response was excellent, and they really seemed to get a lot more out of it that other revision sessions they'd done.

The important bit for me was that we not only thought about these things, but we modeled them during the session: We had water stations for everyone and herbal tea if they wanted; We provided complex carbohydrate (sugar-free) flapjacks and bananas, and we kept them standing for the 25 minute sessions in a relatively cool classroom.

Lastly, before we got onto the material itself, we talked about what time of day their bodies and brains work best. We thought about timing, and what your brain can hold at any one time: We discussed working 3 hours a day, beginning early in the day. Morning is always better to get revision out of the way, and it gives them the rest of the day to look forward to, with the sense of achievement and the feel-good factor that goes with it. We talked about never revising for more than 20-25 minutes at a time, and being strictly disciplined with five minute breaks in between: Not over-eating. Rehydrating. Re-energising through breathing before the next session. And no more than 6-8 sessions in a day. And we talked about reflecting on what they'd learnt before they ended each 20-25 minute session, to increase likely retention of material. We talked about maximising this with one session reviewing this revision either later that day - 20 minutes or so - or perhaps first thing the following morning.

And finally we talked about resting and relaxing after the work is done. If they're disciplined, and they've stuck to their schedule, they've earned it as far as I'm concerned.

Oddly enough, this was probably the most important bit of the day for the students, according to the feedback we got. The whole motivation industry is well and truly established within education, but many of the students complained that once Mr Motivator had pumped them up and buggered off, they didn't necessarily know how to set about their task. This gave them an idea of what needed to be done on a daily basis in order to achieve those long-term goals, and they seemed to appreciate that help.

The rest of the sessions were dealing with particular skills and content important to my subject. We worked out how much there was to revise, how often we'd need to review each topic before the exam, and created the revision timetable we needed as a roadmap for the journey. Then we thought about the revision tasks themselves: We talked about summarising content, synthesising ideas and finding links, mind-mapping topics, applying ideas and theories to examples, practising exam tasks, but above we made it clear: NEVER simply read through notes! Revise actively, with colours, different layouts, mind maps etc, but don't just sit down. That way lies death and boredom... Or at least poor results.

And there you have it. It looks like there was no magic bullet all along. It's all just a matter of teaching the students to be aware of how they learn optimally. We'll see if it worked on results day...

ADDENDUM: If by any chance there is a magic bullet, and you've found it, please share it. I'm still curious.