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Published: Thursday, March 21, 2019

Looking at revision techniques

Jon Hale, Head of Biology at Beaulieu Convent School looks at the art of revision:

I recently read through a @RSC_EiC tweet about the sweet spot in developing long-term memory of concepts in students and the (educational) research. It was interesting, but it’s not rocket science, it’s Biology after all.
The issue with the current specifications is the sheer volume of content. Teachers feel pressurised into getting through as much as they can in every lesson in a race to get enough time to revise, but are we doing the right thing to maximise attainment?
(I would love to discuss how we can develop the depth of learning that goes beyond the scope of the A level and actually inspires the students to study something that fascinates them at university rather than just choosing one of the 10 degree pathways they are aware of, but the exams are so close!)

A lot of research has gone into metacognition in students, but do any of your students learn the same way in every lesson?
Some concepts they might ‘get’ sooner than others, some concepts are simply harder to understand than others, so how can you get the students more self-aware earlier?
It is widely known that resilience isn’t great in a lot of students these days, especially in adolescent girls. For this reason, I frequently use high demand multiple choice questions, each one acting as a hinge question, but a hinge question for them and their understanding. By utilising Plickers, they get immediate feedback and the discussion that they need to improve their initial understanding. Using the same questions after a few weeks gives some tracking of retention and hopefully gets them building long-term memories.

When attempting to build sequential conceptual learning, such as the steps of aerobic respiration or photosynthesis, I use laminated scaffolds which do not resemble textbooks or revision guides in my quest to build plasticity in their knowledge. The laminated nature is an adapted take on a whiteboard, reducing the risk element of the assessment.

And then it was proper revision time, and the temptation to dive straight into the past paper questions, but are they ready?
I see a lot of students attempting papers to try and learn concepts rather than developing their exam technique. Which leads us back to the volume of content. Biology textbooks are chunky, chunkier than most, revision guides are an attractive alternative for students, but do they engage with the content as well without the filler?
I am a firm believer in that students need to be actively engaged in their revision, and this requires an investment in time from them.
One of the techniques that requires the most engagement and processing in something I heard from @Dragonfly_EDU quite a few years ago (well before the A level reforms). It was called wheeling and works on concentric circles, with detail increasing as distance from the centre increases.
Using this technique, each big topic takes around 2-3 hours to condense into one A3 page. I find that students that use this strategy over mind-mapping perform much better as they appreciate the detail of a concept rather than just the bigger picture. They need to have an appreciation of what parts of the specification are more complex than other aspects.

To help students’ approach to comparative Level of Response (LoR) questions that seem to be guaranteed in some form in the A level, I have gone back in time, to the land of the educational dinosaurs and the advent of the Venn diagram.
Allowing students to work in small groups on different compare and contrasts like: glucagon/insulin; photosynthesis/respiration; prokaryote/eukaryote; PCR/Sequencing; Ventilation in Insects/Ventilation in mammals; etc. It is essential to give students enough time to actually delve into all the detail they can recall before intervention. Then rotate the groups through the questions, with ever shortening intervals and before you know it, they’ve identified a least a dozen marking points and a scaffold for a LoR answer.

Hopefully by this point, students are able to make more effective use of past paper questions and develop their exam technique of comprehension and application rather than trying to fill in the gaps of their knowledge by reading mark schemes.


Mr Jon M Hale

I have been Head of Biology at my current school for the past 4 years. This school is a non-selective girls school catering for students with Oxbridge aspirations all the way to those choosing subjects for the enjoyment rather than achieving a grade. Last year I was fortunate to be named as a regional winner of the ENTHUSE Excellence in STEM Teaching - Secondary which further inspired me to be innovative in my approach to teaching.