Guest Blog #7 Tim Small : The 5 Simple Steps to Revise like an Expert

Tim Small is a former secondary Headteacher/Principal and has taught in seven comprehensive schools over 27 years. Tim now works as an Associate Executive Coach and regular blogger for one of the UK’s Leadership Coaching companies for School Leaders, Integrity Coaching.
Five Rules of Real Revision

  1. Active revision is five times as effective as passive revision.
  2. It’s five times better to revise all the material quite well, than some of the material very well.
  3. Make a revision plan, or timetable, when you’ve still got loads of time.
  4. Don’t spend long on the plan!  (It gets no marks!)
  5. Don’t abandon the plan if you fall behind – adjust it, then stick to it.

What does ‘active revision look’ like?
Here is the best example I know.  My students and my own children who used it mostly got A grades.
Step 1: Prep – get kitted out
You only need your pen and file paper, some packs of index cards, coloured or white; some coloured sticky dots and some highlighter pens.  
Step 2: Choosing – BIG HEADINGS
(Do this with a friend or ask your teacher to get your class doing it together)
For each exam topic you are revising for (memory ones, not skill ones) DECIDE on up to FIVE BIG HEADINGS, under which ALL the knowledge can be organised (three or four could be enough).
Just for example (you could improve on this) here are five headings for the topic ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Give each a coloured dot to make the most of visual, or photographic, memory:

  1. The Lovers
  2. The Fairies
  3. The Mechanicals
  4. Humour
  5. Plot

Step 3: Organising – into THEMES
Subdivide everything you want to put under your big headings into three to five THEMES or sub-headings.
Using our example again:

  • Humour:
  1. Magic and trickery
  2. Funny language and word-play
  3. Slapstick (funny actions)
  4. Class differences
  5. Dramatic irony/mistaken identity   

Some of these might crop up under other headings too – that’s OK!  Each card might do more than one job.  The coloured dots will help to show that.  (You could use card colours for the headings and dots for the themes if you like.)

Image Credit: Integrity Coaching

Step 4: Selecting – key facts, quotations, ideas
Now open the book!  Every minute your nose is in the textbook is worth double.  You will see useful stuff you are not looking for, as well as finding what you are looking for.
For each of the themes or sub-sections, find two or three great facts, quotations or ideas.  They should be BRIEF – no more than a dozen words, or one or two lines.  Try to choose ones that BEST ILLUSTRATE what you have learned about that theme.
Use ONE CARD for EACH.  Write the quotation, or selected words, out on the card, (after putting the topic title, main heading and theme heading at the top – see the example below).
The act of writing this out IN FULL will be helping to cement it into your memory.
Step 5: Explaining – brief commentary on what it shows
Underneath the quotation or key fact you have chosen, write a comment in your OWN WORDS explaining what it shows about this theme.  You can use ‘shorthand’ here – a few single keywords might be enough – it is only an ‘aide memoire’ – a memory trigger. For GCSE exams, one comment is probably enough.  For A-level and degree work, you might think of two or three, or more.
An example of how your card may look

MND (Exam Topic Title)
(Theme) Funny Language and word-play
Bottom (as Pyramus) “…the flowers of odious savours sweet…”
(This shows…) Bottom in rehearsal, reading ‘odours’ as ‘odious’, comically ruining Quince’s poetic language … making a fool of himself, while taking himself so seriously … just like he will do later with Titania.

Summary of our example:

Topic: one Shakespeare play 

5 headings x 4 themes (on average) – 20 themes x 3 quotations = around 60 cards in total.

Once you are used to it, each card takes 10-15 minutes max to make.

Up to 15 revision hours needed. Allocate 2-3 days per topic.

Lastly: Five Reasons why this works so well

  1. Actively creating your card system helps you to concentrate for five times as long at a time as you could if simply gazing at your textbook.
  2. You will have something tangible to show for the time you spend – not just stuff in your head to be replaced by the next thing you think about.  The material will be imprinted on your memory, just as it is on the cards.  (Reward yourself with a break every 8-10 cards!)
  3. The process of selecting and organising your material is a perfect mental rehearsal for what you will need to do, under pressure, in response to each question in the exam.
  4. With all your material on cards, you can play ‘revision card games’, alone and together. When the exam is close, try dealing them out in the ideal order for a sample exam question; use them for quizzes.
  5. You can easily sneak a last-minute look at your cards on the morning of the exam, when the textbook would be too much to take in.

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