Getting exam revision right

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The majority of students don’t like to use the most effective revision techniques. This has to change, says Karen Sullivan

When Barnaby Lenon, a former headteacher of Harrow, suggested that GCSE and A level students should study for seven hours-a-day throughout the Easter holidays, I genuinely thought he was joking.

“All topics should be revised at least three times before the exam,” he said. “Studies should start at 9am and finish at 6pm, with regular 30-minute breaks and a good night’s sleep at the end.”

To my mind, with an hour off for lunch (or perhaps, crazy thought, spending some time with friends and family), this means two 30-minute breaks. And long days of study hoping to achieve what exactly?

According to Lenon, “the best GCSE and A level results”.

I disagree. I’ve been watching local secondary school students trudging past my door on their way to revision classes that stretch across the whole of Saturday (all year round) and the holidays, tired faces and weary walks defining them, and every single time I think the same thing: we are creating a generation of students who will find no pleasure whatsoever in learning, who suffer from completely unnecessary stress because of the emphasis placed on exams; who are tired, who have little or no social or family life; who are spending what is effectively the last gasp of their childhood sitting in airless classrooms (or at kitchen tables or bedroom desks).

There is something fundamentally wrong with this approach and having had an excellent Canadian education with nothing like this kind of pressure, I cannot help but wonder what the long-term impact of this will be. It is pretty clear that the new GCSEs have increased academic pressure – on teachers and students alike – but are extra revision classes and prescriptive study timetables actually doing more harm than good?

First and foremost, there is the quality vs quantity equation. According to research (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2012) the majority of students don’t like to use the most effective revision techniques – self-testing, quizzing and flashcards, to name the best – but clock up hours of revision using ineffective methods, such as re-reading class books and highlighting notes.

And according to research led by Professor John Dunlosky (2013): “People learn and recall information better if they connect it to other pieces of information. Highlighters don’t do this, they isolate single pieces of information. Quite often, students end up highlighting whole chunks and passages of text, which can give the appearance of having worked hard, but is of little value.”

He concludes that: “Five techniques received a low utility assessment: summarization, highlighting, the keyword mnemonic, imagery use for text learning, and re-reading.”

Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, who has studied the concept of expertise for decades, recently said that “under the pressure of looming exams, there is an understandable urge to work harder and harder”. However, he says that experts in all fields spent a similar amount of time on “deliberate practice”, which is a maximum of two to four hours daily (Quigley, January 2018).

Alex Quigley, the author of the article in which Prof Ericsson is quoted, suggests: “We know, from over a century of studying the human brain, and our flawed memory, that we need a little forgetting to learn. Cognitive scientists call it ‘spacing’. We also know that we should aim for ‘interleaving’. This fancy term describes the practice of mixing up revision topics, so that the brain is forced to remember and sort the learned material. Our students are prone to the easy approach of blocking – spending all day on one subject or topic.”

And this is, of course, something that most schools support in revision sessions or days.

According to psychologist Bradley Busch, co-author of Release Your Inner Drive: “Actors don’t leave their rehearsals until the day before opening night. Athletes don’t only train the day before a match. To commit something to memory takes time. Spreading out your revision sessions on a particular topic (for example, one-hour sessions over 10 days) is more effective than spending the same amount of time in one go (i.e. 10 hours in one day).

“This effect, known as ‘spacing’, helps because it allows time in between revision sessions to forget and relearn the material.”

And according to Bjork & Bjork, 2011 (quoted in What Makes Great Teaching?, Coe et al, 2014), this is “one of the most general and robust effects from across the entire history of experimental research on learning and memory”.

And there’s more. When students focus their time and effort on grades and how they are performing, learning may not actually happen.

According to Joseph Holtgreive, in Too Smart to Fail? (2016), many bright students are facing fear of failing to be perfect versus the joy of learning, and notes that: “If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow.”

He also points out that: “If students redirect their focus from the scoreboard to the game of learning, an interesting thing happens. Focusing on learning creates a direct relationship between input and outcome: the more effort they invest, the greater the opportunity to learn.”

There are a few bottom lines that are worth mentioning here, too, and these include the fact that more revision does not necessarily result in higher grades and the more serious subject of health and wellbeing, which is most definitely negatively affected by this increasing trend.

And that’s exactly what we’ll look at in my next article.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email To read her previous articles for SecEd, go to Her next article will publish on May 24.


  • Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology, Dunlosky et al, January 2013:
  • Your revision technique should be about quality not quantity, Alex Quigley, TES, January 2018:
  • Too Smart to Fail? Joseph Holtgreive, Inside Higher Ed, August 2016:
  • What Makes Great Teaching? Review of the underpinning research, Coe et al, Durham University & Sutton Trust, October 2014


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