Catch 22

Do I revise or don’t It

As a tutor is is really difficult to advise my students on whether revising for their exams is a worthwhile exercise or not. The Covid-19 experience has blown apart any certainty in what is going to happen next? Exams have been cancelled in Wales, and in Scotland but not in England … yet, so we are waiting to hear what the Department for Education will announce next. Even parents are joining the clamour to cancel next summers exams, but where does this leave the poor student?

At Castle Tutoring for the GCSE and A-Level students we send out a simple message

We cannot pre-empt what the Government might say, but we do know from previous experience that should there be another lockdown and exams are cancelled at the last minute, every student should be thoroughly prepared.

Therefore there should be two priorities for every student right now.

  • 1 – Make sure all assessments and coursework are produced to the highest standards.
  • 2 – Prepare for the mock exams as if they are the real exams

Retrieval practice continues to be at the heart of any revision strategy, drawing on the previous learned material from their long-term memories, and returning it to the front of the brain ready to be deployed onto an exam paper.

Even today in a Year 13 Politics class I espoused by oft repeated technique for retrieval;

Block out a two hour revision slot in your revision timetable.

  • 30 mins – Revise the information, read the notes/books, make notes, use flashcards. Active learning through doing rather than simply reading or highlighting.
  • 10 mins – Off, go and make a cup of tea, check your insta stories, whatever really to switch off.
  • 30 mins – Answer a question in exam conditions, no notes, no phones, no laptops, no reference points. Simply put yourself under pressure for 30 minutes.
  • 10 mins – Reward yourself wit a cup of tea or a nice cool relaxing drink
  • 30 mins – Compare your answer written in exam conditions with your notes. use mark schemes and examiners reports. what grade would you have given yourself? Why? What did you do well? what could you improve etc? If you have time re-write either your whole answer or parts of it.

For me this remains the most successful revision technique out there, the problem is getting our students to follow it. Yes it is uncomfortable and yes it highlights areas that students may not actually know, but surely it is best to understand gaps in your knowledge now rather than six months down the road? Re-reading your notes and using highlighters may be comforting but research has shown they are not very effective strategies. They don’t tax your memory and consequently you don’t have to work very had as the information is right in front of you. 

So how do we overcome this?

Firstly, I have found it important to share the materials that you have and in particular the research that reveals the importance of retrieval as a revision tool, such as this by Karpicke and Grimaldi (2012), and discuss the graph showing the difference in test outcomes from retrieval over re-study. 

Revision is a singular activity, what works for others may not work for you, however the fixed mindset approach is to make excuses around that, such as

“I can’t work without listening to music”

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

They may need to find what works for them, but this needs to still involve retrieving information from memory, spacing it over time and having a calm and focused learning environment. Here is a checklist to give you an


  1. I give myself at least 3 weeks to prepare for exams
  2. My notes are finished well in advance of exams (2 weeks before the exam day)
  3. I spend at least 1 week on practice questions/papers only
  4. I do practice questions open-book initially, then when I feel more comfortable I transition to closed-book
  5. I do practice questions/papers without time constraints initially, then when I feel more comfortable I time myself
  6. I mark any practice questions/papers that I do


  1. I stick as closely as possible to my usual routine (eg. what time I wake up, go to bed)
  2. I avoid people who speculate about what might be in the exam
  3. I avoid cramming outside the exam hall


  1. I read all questions thoroughly during reading time, and make sure to consider the instructional words used (eg. discuss, analyse, evaluate, etc.)
  2. I ration my time according to the number of marks allocated to each question
  3. Before I start writing a short-answer or essay response, I take the time to consider all answers and plan out my response
  4. I regularly take deep breaths to help avoid tension and to break up sections
  5. I allow a small amount of time to review what I have written and make any edits


  1. I ask for my teacher’s advice on how to improve my marks
  2. I identify what types of exam questions (multiple choice, short answer, essay) that I lose marks in
  3. I identify what topics I am weak in based on the questions I answered incorrectly
  4. I use sample responses from people that are getting higher marks than me to see what they are doing differently

re-inventing the wheel

Photo by Navneet Shanu on

The problem with re-inventing the wheel is that you get all sorts of different shapes and sizes. Students like to see what success looks like and giving prompts on how to study and revise is a really positive first step. When I lecture to teachers about assessment I always put model answers at the top of the priority list. After all if a student knows what a top grade answer looks like, they are likely to a) replicate it and b) strive to surpass it.

I am much more explicit about teaching learning strategies in class, such as effective mind mapping and self-explanation, and explaining how this could also be used by them at home for revision and it works 

There are so many other ways of doing this successfully and as a practitioner i am always on the lookout for new strategies and ways of doing things. This gets us a long way, especially with those students who are already motivated to do well, but there are always those who are resistant and need extra encouragement to revise effectively.

Can my Parents help?

Photo by August de Richelieu on

There are ten really good ways parents and other adults can be supportive during this time and more than ever their support and understanding can make a huge difference. I will write in more details about this in another blog, but here is a good checklist for the adult in your life.

  1. Being a role model
  2. Help them set goals
  3. Keep them active
  4. Healthy eating
  5. Time out
  6. Sleep patterns
  7. Unplugging
  8. Staying cool & calm
  9. Belief
  10. 10.Be supportive

Revision is tough right now, but it is really important to keep those eyes very firmly on the prize, good luck and make sure you have no regrets.

2 thoughts on “Catch 22

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