Pendle Vale College (11-16) is an average-sized mixed secondary school (with 1,050 students) in the deprived area of Nelson in Lancashire. The proportion of students from a minority ethnic background and those whose first language is not English are well above the national average. Over a third of our school population is eligible for Additional funding for publicly funded schools in England to... and attainment on entry is well below the national average.
The revision challenge
Terminal exams have become critical to the success of almost all subjects at KS4. If students are unable to perform adequately in their exam, they risk leaving without a qualification at the end of the course.
This is an issue across all subjects, but in one of our Business Studies classes, it became apparent – from observing pupil attitude and actions – that students needed to take more responsibility for the organisation and management of their revision. So we focused on a Year 10 Business Studies class of middle to low attainment, with end of year targets of BTEC Level 1/2 Pass or Merit. One student has special educational needs (SEN), five receive pupil premium funding and nine have English as a secondary language (EAL). The group is mainly boys who are a particular area of focus for us in our drive to raise standards.
During conversations to explore their perceptions, we discovered that the class believed that revision is something that happens ‘in the weeks leading up to your exams’. They were unfamiliar with breaking up revision into smaller, more manageable, chunks over a longer period of time. They believed revision was usually led by their teacher in the form of ‘catch-up sessions’ and ‘last-minute cramming’.
The Business Finance exam is a core component of the BTEC Business Course, and a poor mark in this exam will impact heavily on their overall grade for the course. We wanted to use research and our knowledge as experienced classroom teachers to develop a strategy that:
- Improved exam marks over time
- Equipped the class with a revision strategy to support their terminal exam and which they can apply across all their other subjects
- Showed pupils their own progress
- Enabled pupils to retain their learning independently over time.
Our approach to revision cards
We did some reading around what other had written about memory and retrieval techniques. We located three main articles which looked like they could be useful to crystallise the theory of memory and retrieval. These were:
- Dunlosky, J. (2013) ‘Strengthening the Student Toolbox’ American Educator, Fall 2013, pp12-21.
- Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2007) ‘Teaching that Sticks’, pp1-11. Article on 18th November 2017.
- Willingham, D (2008) ‘What will Improve a Student’s Memory?’, American Educator, Winter 2008-2009, pp 17-44.
We combined these theories – together with our knowledge of pedagogy and the students – to close the gap between what we were seeing in practice and what the research was telling us. We shared the reading between us and met to distil and discuss what we each felt were the main findings from each of the three papers.
Instead of introducing a new strategy for revision, we wanted to use something the students were already familiar with, but make it more effective (before considering whether to launch it school-wide). We talked through how to apply our research to the idea of revision cards, which pupils were already familiar with as part of the school’s wider teaching and learning strategy.
Memory cues support memory and retention of information over time
Most pupils were struggling to use the cards in a structured and meaningful way – they had been largely left to choose how they wanted to use them, without clear guidance on how to do so effectively. When we questioned students about how they were revising, we found they were re-reading and highlighting key points in their books. In their minds, this was considered to be good revision, but it was not supporting them to retrieve learning over time.
The information that resonated with us most was that ‘memory cues support memory and retention of information over time’ (Dunlosky, 2013). Willingham (2008) further states that frequent retrieval practice – ideally low stakes retrieval without formal testing to allow the students to practice their revision – allows for retrieval to happen in a non-stressful, low-pressure manner. If this could be embedded as a regular part of ‘lesson starter’ activities, pupils might be able to demonstrate to themselves, over time, that they could recall and retrieve learning, if they approached it in the right way.
The research doesn’t say that the memory has to be attached at the time of learning – only that cues help us with our memory. Nonetheless, we decided our pupils needed to attach the memory cue while learning was fresh to make sure it was correct and avoided misconceptions. This clarified that we needed to teach students how to attach memory cues to their revision cards, ideally at the time of the new learning, so they could use them to retrieve and recall information more effortlessly.
The starter activity for each lesson is a mini retrieval activity based around the topics students have revised to date.
Revision cards: our approach in practice
Following each Business Studies lesson where new learning was taught, the pupils’ homework was to produce a single revision card with key learning points on it. They built up revision cards over time, using personal memory cues that best help them to remember key information.
At this stage, we want to embed the routine of making the revision cards for homework. This is further supported through additional study support time where we reinforce use of revision cards and recall of knowledge. At the time of writing, pupils are producing a mix of graphics and written information, though this still needs further development. To overcome this, we will give pupils opportunities to practise and trial which particular memory cues work for them, rather than allowing them to revert back to their ‘feel safe’ learned model of reproducing the information.
The starter activity for each lesson is a mini retrieval activity based around the topics students have revised to date (see below). We took care to devise several differentiated questions, with Progressively introducing students to new concepts to suppor... for pupils who needed more support, around topics we felt most of the class needed more practice on. This information came from formative assessment and marking class books. The aim is that prior learning will be revisited several times over the year to allow students to practise their skills, and revisit learning they may not have properly understood before. This will become regular, low-stakes testing, to get pupils into the cycle of revising, making a revision card and then retrieving knowledge in class.
Examples of retrieval practice
One issue was a small number of students who tried to copy answers from the person sitting next to them during the retrieval activity. We overcame this by ensuring each student had a slightly different question to the person sitting directly next to them. The next time we did the retrieval activity, the students realised they had different papers, so the quality of the revision cards they produced from then on improved. This was useful as it gave us a true indication of how many students had genuinely completed their revision. It was also a great opportunity to open up a discussion as to why we were doing retrieval practice and why the revision cards mattered.
Students spoke to their peers about how the method has them to recall the information they needed for the starter tasks. We found pupils were more inclined to listen to the experiences of their peers, which reinforced the message it does work and will support them if they do it properly. Following this conversation, there was a noticeable improvement in the quality of revision cards produced. Test performance also improved as they started to take it more seriously and see the benefits for themselves. There was a real buzz and determination from the pupils to work through the starter activities and make sure they performed well, assisted by their knowledge retrieval which was becoming more effortless.
We found that the first time we did this activity, pupils did not take the revision card activity very seriously and there was real variety in the quality of revision cards produced and hence the retrieval practice question results. Some students returned to the next lesson with their ‘revision’ clearly written for the teacher’s benefit, not their own. There was also some indication that some of the pupils did not take the testing seriously during the first few lessons.
After a few lessons, however, their own evaluations (below) show they quickly realised they needed to take revision cards more seriously for it to support them with retrieving information for their exam. Over time, we have noticed these particular students are struggling less with factual recall than initially. Once they can recall the basic ‘building blocks’ of the business theory, they can use this information to answer higher-level questions, which is what allows them to access higher marks in the exams.
Examples of revision cards
In future lessons we will teach the students strategies to ensure what they record on their revision card is a helpful memory cue. At this stage, if the students are developing routines of producing their revision card while the memory of the learning is fresh, this is better than not doing anything at all. We now need to teach them the skills to make this more memory cue focused and how to do this effectively.
With grateful thanks to the Headteacher of Pendle Vale College, Steve Wilson, for giving permission to use and cite the school in this article.