The importance of Revision and Review
by Tara McVey
What does learning look like? Focus? Quiet concentration? Engagement? Answering questions? Lots of writing? Well, while these things are reassuring and look lovely, they are simply the things that we can see; they do not equate to learning because learning, in itself is invisible.
Even a learner finds it difficult to know when they are learning. Robert Bjork talks about the idea that both teacher and student can be fooled into thinking that the kind of teaching that improves understanding and ‘performance’ during a lesson will therefore lead to long term retention when the opposite is often true. ‘Manipulations that speed the rate of acquisition during instruction can fail to support long-term retention and transfer, whereas other manipulations that appear to introduce difficulties and slow the rate of acquisition can enhance post-instruction recall and transfer.’ So, there are cases where the teacher feels as though the student has ‘got it’ in the lesson, and the student feels as though they know it and yet, the research shows that they won’t actually remember it.
In ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ Daniel Willingham introduces the idea that we don’t like thinking hard - but that we need to think hard in order to remember. He states that memory is the ‘residue of thought’. But, as humans, we will avoid thinking if possible. The problem is, therefore, that we like things that make us feel as though we are learning without having to actually work too hard.
In ‘Make it Stick - The Science of Successful Learning’, the authors talk about the ‘illusions of knowing. They pick up on the idea that we are ‘poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not’ pointing out that we, as learners, prefer strategies that feel fruitful and fluent such as re reading information and massed practice. These make us feel as though we know the information. Students tend to overestimate how well they’ve mastered class material - because when something has been explained fully to them, the ease with which they grasp it makes it feel as though they understand it - and even know it to the point whereby they don’t think have to study it.
And, unfortunately, when students do study, they don’t always use the best techniques, preferring instead the false feeling of familiarity that comes with simply rereading a text lots of times. They feel good about the time they’re spending; parents, seeing them studying, feel good about the work they’re putting in. Pupils become familiar with the material and fluent in reading it - but they don’t actually know it. However, the discovery that they don’t actually know it can come too late - in fact, just after the words: ‘You may begin.’
One solution that the authors of ‘Make it Stick’ offer is retrieval. By this, essentially, they are talking about using testing as a learning tool. And they qualify the retrieval by talking about ‘effortful retrieval’ which ‘makes for stronger learning and retention’. ‘We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better... After an initial test, delaying subsequent retrieval practice is more potent for reinforcing retention than immediate practice, becaused delayed retrieval requires more effort.’ They point out that ‘giving students corrective feedback after tests keeps them from incorrectly retaining material they have misunderstood and produces better learning of the correct answers.’
Professor John Dunlovsky of Kent State University also recommends testing (including student self testing) as a revision tool, pointing out that, ‘more than 100 years of research has yielded several hundred experiments showing that practice testing enhances learning and retention.’ He is talking about low stakes recall type testing including the use of flashcards. They other technique championed is the idea of ‘distributed practice’ based on students coming across the material to be learned on more than one occasion ‘such as when students review their notes and then later use flashcards to restudy the materials, or when a topic is covered in class and then later studied in a textbook.’ So rather than studying a single topic for a number of hours in order to revise, a student would be better off even using the same amount of time but spreading out the learning across sessions which would benefit long term retention.
So, how are we using this understanding at Towers? Well, every lesson begins with a review task - which, at times, is based simply on the previous lesson and, at other times, on lessons which have been taught long before. We use low stakes testing in lessons to reinforce learning. We run revision sessions for Year 11 students which teach them how to self quiz. We have invited the parents of every year group into school to explain the ideas behind it, to share our understanding of how to reinforce learning, of how to move something from our short term memory to our long term - but then be able to access it when required. Our subject staff have been given joint planning time to work together on creating curriculum revision lessons that draw on these ideas.
We have plans to keep working on it and to keep building on the ideas that are out there - because our students deserve to know how to become the best that they can be. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.