Study skills: Effective use of revision guides

Written by: Helen Webb | Published:
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Revision guides are popular resources with many teachers and parents, but do students use them properly? Helen Webb looks at how to teach students to use revision guides more effectively

Schools and parents invest huge amounts of money buying revision guides for students. However, many students have no idea how to use them to learn effectively.

Based on evidence from cognitive psychology (Dunlosky et al, 2013) which is summarised in Robert Coe et al’s review of the underpinning research – What Makes Great Teaching? – this article provides a variety of hints and tips for teachers to use in the classroom so that their students can make better use of these resources at home.

Use them in the classroom

  • Encourage students to bring their revision guides to lessons. Familiarity with the content and the layout of the book should make studying from the revision guide much less daunting at home.

Finding the right information

  • With more able students, don’t provide any guidance of where to find information (e.g. encourage some initiative on using contents pages or indexes).
  • For less able students, layer up the support, providing the chapter or page number and then ultimately direct students to the specific paragraph, sentence or diagram if need be.
  • If the volume of information on a page overwhelms a student, advise them to either cover up the part of the page they don’t need or simply draw a neat highlighted box around the information they need to focus on.

Don’t use ‘highlighting’ strategies

  • While highlighting can help to pin-point specific information, research suggests that highlighting has little value when it comes to learning work, unless students revisit the highlighted information.

Don’t keep re-reading the same page

  • Research suggests that repeated reading of revision guides, despite being a favourite study choice of most students, doesn’t lead to improved learning.
  • However, to encourage students to make an initial engagement with their revision guide in the classroom, you could provide a silent reading opportunity. Or if there are students with poor reading skills in your group, ask a group of students to read a page, sentence or paragraph at a time in rotation prior to completing a task.

Summarising

  • Successful summaries identify the main points of a text and capture the gist of it while excluding unimportant or repetitive material (Brown, Campione, & Day, 1981 as cited in Dunlosky et al 2013).
  • The issues with summarising information, particularly if from a lengthy text, are that it can be time-consuming and many students are not skilled in summarising texts well.
  • In Dunlosky et al’s (2013) review of the research on the effectiveness of this strategy to improve learning, it is suggested that although summarising could be a better strategy than re-reading and highlighting, students would need considerable training in order to do this strategy well and as such would probably benefit more from generating their own explanations or developing their self-questioning skills.

Doing something with the information

  • Ask students to convert the information in the revision guide from one format to another, for example from a paragraph to a comparison table, diagram, mind map, picture, list, etc. (Mike Hughes’ book And the Main Thing is Learning is an excellent resource if you want a comprehensive selection of ideas for activities.)

Focus on a small chunk of text

  • Ask students to read a section in the revision guide carefully, jotting down any key points or important information.
  • Ask students to write questions that would cover these key points in their response.
  • Write these answers separately from the questions so that they can answer them later when they are revising. This could be on the reverse of a flash card or on the bottom half of their exercise book page that can be covered up during the testing phase.
  • Suggest that they label their flash cards or pages in their revision notes with the topic and page that they are revising so that they can easily find the information at a later date if they need to do further studying.
  • Repeat this process with the next chunk of text.

Focus on what you don’t know

  • After self-testing encourage students to sort the flash cards into piles; information students recalled correctly and ones that they did not.
  • Repeat the self-testing and checking process focusing only on the cards that students recalled incorrectly until there are no cards left in that pile.
  • Repeat this process using all the flash cards during a subsequent study session to improve long-term retention and learning.

Cross-reference your learning

  • Revision guides don’t always cover every aspect of the specification you are covering. Encourage students to cross-check their learning against a specification (student-friendly specification checklists are available for many subjects).
  • Where there are gaps in the required level of detail, after making notes from the revision guide (which are generally more concise), find further examples from the class textbooks or online, although the accuracy of these will need to be checked.

Test yourself

  • The research suggests that having to generate an answer, or having to retrieve information – even if no feedback is given – leads to better long-term recall than simply reading.
  • At the start of a lesson ask students to recall everything they know about a particular topic – link this with a page or section of a page in their revision guide. Make sure all their books and class notes are away at this stage. Students should recall their knowledge in as much detail as possible either on a mini-whiteboard or on paper.
  • Once completed, ask students to check the accuracy of their recall against the content of their revision guide.
  • Where there are errors or gaps in their knowledge they can annotate their work in a different coloured pen.
  • Then ask students to write further flash cards or a personalised quiz with answers based on these tricky areas.

Teach someone

  • After students have tested themselves and checked their understanding, ask them to teach what they have learnt to someone else. This strategy not only helps later recall but also requires the student to structure and organise their learning.

Space out your learning

  • The best way to revise is to start early, break up the learning into chunks and take regular breaks. “Spacing”, which has some of the most robust evidence supporting its effectiveness, helps because it allows time in between revision sessions to forget and re-learn the material.
  • Teachers can support this process by utilising structured homework slots to revisit previous rather than current topics.
  • Spacing out topics in this way will encourage students to make connections in their learning, improve the flexibility in their thinking but also lead to better long-term retention and transfer of skills.
  • Provide regular opportunities in class where students can revisit their own personalised quizzes and flash cards to consolidate weak areas from different topics. (Don’t forget to remind students to check their accuracy often with their revision guides.)

Using imagery

  • Although visualisation techniques have only limited effectiveness in learning work, it may be useful prior to completing a past exam question to ask students to recall the topic and the section in their revision guide that the question is referencing to ensure they understand what topic content the question is testing, e.g. can they recall the key ideas, pictures and/or diagrams that were contained on that page?

Other techniques

  • Mnemonics can be used to help remember specific facts, such as for the colours of the spectrum (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain).
  • Ask students to highlight between three and 10 key tricky spellings or definitions or other terms on a page. In pairs ask students to test each other’s ability to spell or define these terms.
  • Challenge students to make connections between the key words or concepts that were selected.

Make use of available resources

  • Many revision guides now come with workbooks and answer booklets and apps that quiz students on content directly related to revision guides; make sure your students know what is available to them.
  • Be aware that some courses have more than one booklet available. For example, science courses often have numeracy and practical handbooks to accompany the course content.

Improve focus and attention

  • Finally, remind students to put their phones away, take regular breaks, eat well and get a good night’s sleep.



  • Helen Webb is an experienced science and biology teacher with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. She works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can follow her @helenfwebb. To read Helen’s previous articles for SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/2cLa6UZ

Further information

  • What Makes Great Teaching? Review of the underpinning research, Coe et al, Sutton Trust, October 2014: http://bit.ly/12CehIF
  • Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology, Dunlosky et al, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2013: http://bit.ly/2x7pxfb


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