Books to loan to students 4/5

We’re through the easier books, really – at least, the ones that I’ve found to recommend to students who are younger or who struggle, but are still interested. I expect them to dip in and out, perhaps miss the trickier sections. If I want to push them a little more, then Bill Bryson’s A Brief History of Nearly Everything is really good. Today’s suggestion is, however, a little more challenging.

I suspect many science teachers have read and enjoyed Ben Goldacre’s work. The Guardian column, blog and book all share the name Bad Science and there is a lot of overlap in terms of material. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in science, whether medical (as Ben is) or not. The book is certainly a good read and the newer edition has an index, which mine doesn’t. Ben has a keen interest in the use of bad maths to promote bad science and he has little patience for people and institutions who ignore science to promote their own agendas. Despite the regular claims of alternative medicine practitioners about bias he is equally scathing about drug companies or establishment figures who can’t, or won’t, do the maths if it would challenge their position.

Books to loan to students 3/5

I like comics. I liked them as a kid and I like them now, especially titles such as The Sandman, Transmetropolitan and Preacher. (NB – these last two not really suitable for kids or easily shocked adults.) And so I was pleased when I was given The Physics of Superheroes by a friend. I suspect it was inspired in part by a Larry Niven essay from years ago but covers the subject much more widely.

The book uses the concepts behind a range of superheroes to explain scientific theories and ideas. It considers the apparent contradictions of some of the heroes, some of which illustrate our changing understanding of matter, space or light. I’ve found it a great book to loan to more able students at key stage 4 who would like to access more challenging areas of physics than the syllabus allows.

In a similar way, but only really relevant for one month in twelve, Can Reindeer Fly:The Science of Christmas is a fun read that uses ideas or situations we take for granted – if in a less-than-serious way – to explain scientific concepts. Students have to be fast readers, hoever, to get through it during a single festive season. Single chapters or excerpts can be used during end-of-term lessons if desired…

Books to loan to students 2/5

How To Dunk A Doughnut is a great collection of the science in everyday life, written as a collection of chapters. Inspired in part by a light-hearted paper in Nature 397 (I think it’s the same one as is republished at First Science here), the book examines how science affects us every day in the most unexpected ways. The science itself is not easy, but is well explained by Len Fisher, who describes himself as a scientist, author and communicator. He is currently a visiting research fellow at Bristol and continues to write, including Weighing The Soul, which I also enjoyed.

I encourage my students to write while they read – a technique I often use myself. Many of my books have scribbled margins, and although they don’t tend to join in, I find it very interesting when they ask me questions based on what they’ve read or try and push themselves further. I know things are going well when I struggle to answer their questions!

Books to loan to students 1/5

As a sixth form student, many years ago, I had a subscription to New Scientist. I probably shouldn’t admit that on the interweb. Still, I found it interesting, if slightly geeky, and not too hard to understand most of the time. I now find some of the articles a bit basic, although useful in lessons, and have long since let my subscription lapse. Like many readers, one of the first pages I used to turn to was at the back, ther ‘Last Word’ section. This included questions asked by readers and a selection of the responses.

How to Fossilise Your Hamster is one of several books collecting together the high – and low – points of this correspondance. Some of the questions are about scientific theories, others ask about practical applications. This book in particular has many suggestions for ideas you can test out or demonstrate at home, and I have pinched a few to use in lessons too. The series (several are available) are great to loan out to students and have, for me, bridged a gap between the Horrible Science series, which are fun but a bit basic, and the more challenging recommendations I will list later this week.

Cornell Notes for revision

I like the Cornell note-taking system (at Wikipedia and at Lifehacker) but I have to admit that I’ve not found it very useful for most of my students. I’d love to believe that the average fourteen year old could make and organise notes, but the evidence so far is against it. I’m planning to try it when I next have my classes watch a video, but for most lessons I need to know that they’re going to leave with a set of useful notes. Instead, I’m using it to help students focus their revision.

I explain the concept in a lesson after students have had the chance to choose their priorities, using an audit. (described in the previous post) I then ask them to write three or four questions they need to answer, or areas they need to focus on. Their homework is then to produce revision notes, summarised from memory, folders, textbooks or the internet, on those areas. Alternatively, students can produce their plans and then use the lesson and available resources (textbooks, folders, educational software, internet, me) to fill the gaps. A blank pdf and a word version which is probably best suited as an electronic blank are below.

Printables: cornell revision as docx : cornell revision as pdf

In theory, the small space available means they will choose the main points. By planning the ‘target’ areas in advance, they’re not left sitting at their desk – or perhaps more realistically, in front of the TV – wondering what to revise. It emphasizes the idea that at least some revision should result in something new written down. The summary at the bottom leaves room for 3-6 questions they could not have answered before completing the sheet, allowing future checking of their progress.

If repeated, this ends up with a student who has a set of complete revision notes, with headings and summaries, starting with the areas they personally find tricky. Can’t really ask for more than that.

Planning Effective Revision

Previous posts and a dedicated page cover some revision ideas. Today I – for what feels like the hundredth time – spoke to a class about planning their revision to make sure it is time well spent.

It would be lovely to think all students stared revision early, covered every item several times, and then was able to ask me questions in plenty of time to pass the exam. Our module exam (P1a Energy and Electricity from AQA, for what it’s worth) is in a month and I can assure you they’re not that well organised. These are a few ideas to help.

Students need to know what they need to know. Referring to the exam specification or syllabus can help, or try using an audit to tick off areas they’re happy with and focus on those they’re not. Revision guides can also be useful if they’re exam specific, but a ticklist such as the ones I issue to my students (one below, more to follow) let them set their own priorities. Taking responsibility for their own revision is something which puts them, hopefully, in the right frame of mind too!

Printable: P1a revision checklist

Of course, one of the dreaded situations is when you ask “What don’t you understand?” and they answer “Everything!”

A traffic light system can be very effective – and is easy for a teacher to use in lessons. Simply ask students to grade topics as green (I understand this now and would be confident to answer questions on it) amber/orange/yellow (I’m not sure about this and could do with more time or extra examples) or red (I don’t get this and need someone else to help me). Bullseye diagrams or similar can also be used to think through which topics are better understood than others.

Sometimes I ask students to add post-it notes to a board on which I’ve written headings so they can add those topics they are confident on. This can be modified so they volunteer themselves as ‘tutors’ on one topic and get help on others, an activity that can be long or short (saved as Word doc: Students as Tutors).

In general, these activities or similar ones – as usual, please add any of your own in the comments – help students to figure out what they need to know as far as the exam board are concerned, and what they specifically aren’t good at yet. Next step: effective revision that fills the gaps they’ve identified.

Revising Online

(Updated 1st May to fix broken link)

I’m a big fan of paper and pen, I have to admit. I can’t read a non-fiction book without a pencil in my hand, ready to add notes in margins. Revision should, I feel, start by writing out some ideas, perhaps headings or main nodes of a concept map. But many students disagree and some find it very helpful to use resources online, either ‘live’ or downloadable software. This post will list a few ideas to get you started – please let me know, hypothetical reader, if you can suggest any more – and in time this will become a page all of its own.

Concept/Mind Maps

If you like mind mapping, there are many resources you could check out. One company which likes the idea of visual, rather than written notes and revision is Model Learning These different layouts may be useful in a range of circumstances, to explore, explain and revise links between concepts. I also like the information the Open University have made available at  Visual Techniques for Revision. You might also want to check out

Flash card junkies

You can’t go far wrong with a stack of 5×3 index cards and a pen. If you want to turn this into an electronic equivalent, I currently have three suggestions – but they all require a little work.

Quizlet is a website that allows you to define your own flashcards, linking any two ideas together. They can be definitions, translations, symbol and unit, whatever. Once defined, they can be shared with other users (one of my long-term projects will be to start making sets of these for my students to use) and turned into tests, games and other activities. You may find some useful sets there already and if not, making them yourself is a good first step in revision. 

Memoriser is a freeware utility (translation: free to download and use) which lets you define the facts you want to learn, questions you want to answer or anything else. It can then be set to run in the background while on a computer, asking you random questions at preset intervals.

The third is something you may already have, but it’s an interesting application of Powerpoint. You can save a slideshow as a folder of jpeg (image) files. Many mobile phones can now store and display such files, and you can often run them as a slideshow. This means a revision powerpoint – ideally clear slides with small amounts of text – can be saved to your phone and played back at odd moments, in bus queues or while waiting at the dentists. Most students won’t carry around revision cards, but will need death threats to be parted from their mobile phone.

I’m sure there are many more available – please drop me a line if I’ve missed out your favourites!

Revision – or lack of it

It constantly amazes me that students seem completely clueless when it comes to revision. Even bright, able young people seem not to realize that learning things for a test – whether facts, processes or key vocabulary – takes effort. I am so tired to repeating that “Reading is not revision.” For anyone who’s interested, here’s a few ideas about making revision rather more effective than simply flicking through a text book or folder.

To make revision work properly, it needs to be active. Ignoring all the neuroscience behind this – after all, this isn’t a Brain Gym Pseudoscience seminar – it simply means that the more ways we think about or process something, the more likely we are to remember it. With my students I use the idea of following the MORSE code to make sure revision is active and, hopefully, effective.

Mnemonics are mental shortcuts that help recall a fact, sequence or method. Examples might include “How I Wish I Could Calculate Pi” (How=3, I=1, Wish+4 etc) or “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain.”

Organising the facts we need to know in a specific way, whether chronological, lists, groups of five or whatever can be very effective. Drawing concept maps or dividing facts into advantages and disadvantages are both ways to organise knowledge and create links we find easier to recall later.

Repetition is a method many students use. It is most effective when we vary the method we use to learn repeated facts, perhaps transferring information from one format to another (paragraph to bullet points, concept map to list of questions etc)

Simplifying what is needed can really help, especially to start with. Instead of sentences, choose key words. Summarise the facts so there is less to learn, and so that ‘trigger’ words remind you of greater levels of detail.

Extending what you understand works best by trying to apply what you know to new situations. When a teacher asks students to use an equation to work out a series of problems, this gives practice (repetition) and encourages better understanding of the uses or limitations of a method. There are many ways to extend yourself, such as writing questions for someone else, picking the ten most important words and so on.

Of course many of these ideas overlap with each other. What I constantly find surprising is the sheer number of students who don’t use any of them, so limiting themselves to reading the same words, in the same order, time and again. And as we know – reading isn’t revision.