Helping your youngster with proper planning and preparation and then using effective techniques is the key to successful revision at home. Here is some research-based education advice for parents to share with your teenagers, which will assist you in making sure that they are working productively while studying for approaching examinations at home.
1. Revise a little a lot, not a lot a little
Revising is like eating - you cannot absorb all you need to eat/know in one go. Just as we divide what we need to eat in a day/week/month into separate meals to allow our stomach to digest and make room for more, you need to divide what your brain needs to absorb into ‘bitesize’ chunks. This is why ‘cramming’ never works in the long term. Your working/short-term memory will overload and start ejecting material as you put more in.
Effective revision means enabling your brain to absorb material into its short-term memory and then convert it into long-term memory from which you can then retrieve it.
This concept, therefore, has several implications on WHAT, WHEN and HOW you revise.
2. Use ‘spaced’ learning, not ‘blocked’ learning
‘Blocked’ learning is when you revise subjects/topics one after the other. This is an ineffective approach as it means that you will not remember what you revised after you have revised it, especially if there are lots of topics to revise and you used ‘cramming’ to revise them.
Much more effective is ‘spaced’ learning when you revise a series of subjects/topics bit by bit, coming back to them again and again. This is particularly effective if, every time you return to a subject/topic, you go back over what you previously learned before adding new material to it.
‘Spaced’ learning works not only because it keeps bringing material you have previously learned to your working memory, but also because the interval between learning means you will have forgotten some material. Research shows that forgetting actually aids memory because, when you re-revise something, it makes the links in the brain to it much stronger.
3. Create a revision timetable
‘Bitesize’ revision and ‘spaced’ learning require planning, both in terms of what to revise and when to revise it. Plan the time you have available carefully by creating a timetable.
Make sure that you have asked your teacher for a copy of the syllabus or curriculum content on which you will be examined. This will mean that you are revising the areas which will be tested and not wasting time with those which will not.
Make sure you give equal time to all subjects and topics. Resist the temptation to revise only what you already know and are good at – it is what you don’t know or are not good at which will bring your marks down. An effective technique here is ‘interleaving’ - intermingling the two by rewarding time spent on revising a subject/topic you find difficult with spending the next session on a subject/topic you enjoy.
How long should you revise for? We can all concentrate for different lengths of time, usually dependent on how much we enjoy doing something. However, when you notice your mind is starting to wander, STOP, take a break and come back to the task with a renewed focus. As a general rule, research shows that your brain can manage to stay on task for about 20 minutes. Therefore, a plan to revise in numerous slots of 20 minutes with a 10 minute break in between will mean that you get far more done during a whole day than if you had revised for hours on end.
Ensure you timetable good, daily breaks into your revision schedule. Make sure you are physically active during these breaks to improve your circulation and give your brain a rest. Taking exercise and getting fresh air will boost your endorphins and help to keep your revision in perspective. It will also relieve some of the nerves and tension as the exams draw closer.
4. Create the right revision environment
Research shows the environment you work in is critical to revising effectively.
You need to have a dedicated workspace which is free from distraction. Separate where you study from where you relax (e.g. television). You should work where it is quiet so you can concentrate. Avoid studying in rooms with loud music and conversation as these are distracting (however, some people find that soft music can actually help them concentrate).
Turn off or hide your phone. Save your texting, social media and messages for your breaks.
Your workspace itself should be comfortable but not too comfortable (e.g. working at a clear desk with good lighting is more conducive to productive work than lying on a bed). Your workspace should also be cool and ensure that you have a water bottle that you can constantly sip from (research shows that keeping the brain hydrated enhances concentration and can help achieve higher grades).
Finally, before you start, ensure that you are well-organised and have all your books and revision materials to hand.
Parents should be supportive by taking an interest at the end of each study day by asking how the day has gone and what they feel you have achieved. They could help with retrieval practice (see below).
5. Combine reading with writing
Never just read - this is ‘passive’ learning and is the worst form of revision. In fact, you will have learned very little at all in the long run.
Always combine reading with writing. The simple act of writing makes your brain work to convert information from one medium to another. This is ‘active’ learning. There are various methods you can use to combine reading with writing, but the harder you make your brain work, the more successfully it will convert what you are learning to memory.
Copy out your notes – not very efficient though
Convert your notes – turn your notes into another form of information (eg mindmaps, bullet points, flashcards)
Reduce your notes – try to halve your topic notes – e.g. from 4 pages to 2; then from 2 to 1; aim to have an entire topic on a single report card.
6. Test yourself
There are many ways to test yourself to see how much has gone in.
Retrieval practice is the task of recalling knowledge from your long-term memory. Get a friend or parent to use your mindmap/flashcards to test you on your knowledge. Use it as a way of identifying what hasn’t yet stuck and go back and revise it.
Past papers are an excellent way not only to test your knowledge but also to identify trends in the types of questions that arise on a regular basis. Public examinations in particular will follow trends in the format of questions to test each part of the syllabus, so learning to identify types of questions and how to answer them from past papers will assist you to select the types of questions that suit your personal preference and hence optimise your performance in the examination. Passing examinations is a skill in itself and it is very important to be able to identify and answer the ‘right’ questions for you.
Timekeeping is an important examination skill so make sure that you only allow yourself the same time as you will have in the exam to complete the test paper questions. It is no good patting yourself on the back for a perfect question answer if you took one hour to answer a question which is only allocated 20 minutes.
Understanding how the examiners will award marks for each question will help you to optimise your grade potential. Use mark schemes so you know where the marks will be allocated and practice planning answers carefully. If a question has 3 marks, for example, there is no point wasting time giving a 10 point answer. Ask yourself what are the 3 key points they are looking for.
7. Reward yourself
Incentives are a good way to keep motivation. Allow yourself small rewards for reaching small goals that you have set and big rewards for reaching big goals. There will be times when it gets hard to motivate yourself. Learn to recognise when you are feeling tense and allow yourself a break to take some exercise or have some fun.
8. Look after yourself
We know that stress and anxiety inhibit learning. Therefore make sure you are organised, calm and ready to learn. This will be achieved not only by having a comprehensive revision timetable, all the necessary resources, and a good learning environment, but also by looking after your own basic physiological needs.
Your brain needs food and drink to function, so ensure you eat well at meal times, and, if necessary, have a snack during your breaks. Keep hydrated. Your brain is 80% water and it needs to be topped up. Have water to sip while you are at your desk (research shows that rehydration can boost revision efficiency and, ultimately, grades).
Make sure you have some physical exercise during the day. Not only will this improve your circulation and give your brain a rest, exercise and getting fresh air have been shown to boost your endorphins and it will help to keep your revision in perspective. It will also relieve some of the nerves and tension as the exams draw closer.
Ensure you get a good night’s sleep. Not only does this ensure you will recharge the batteries for the next day’s revision, but also research shows that, in deep sleep, the brain is busy sorting through and filing all the information it has received that day and reinforcing new links made in the day. This is why we can often remember something or do something the next day that we couldn’t remember or do the day before.
Our education advice for parents
If you need any further education advice for parents during exam season, please get in touch with us, our education consultants will be happy to help.