Learn it properly in lessons : Revise effectively : Perform well in the exam

Most students will hate this idea but most will believe it, even if they don’t want to.

Very few students can retain everything they are taught in class without effort. Those that do either hide this fact very well or become very unpopular with their peers. (I was one of the latter.) For the vast majority, they need to do something to remember even the basics, which is where we as teachers come in.

The thing is, what we do to help is what we’ve done for ages. We help the students engage with the lesson content by making our lessons active, rather than passive. This can be in a minor way, or a major one, and how we work it will depend on the age and ability of the students. Proabably the best way to consider it would be as a spectrum, not a clear divide between passive/active. I’ve found it can really help to get my students to suggest themselves how a lesson could be made more active. Individual students can then use whatever method works best for them.

A totally passive lesson would be a lecture, where pupils are not allowed to make notes or perform any action to help the ideas ‘stick’. I don’t think I’ve even been in this kind of lesson. Most of us have the students make notes (making their own is potentially more active than copying, but also more risky) and answer questions, either written or verbal. Correcting your own mistakes, discussing ideas, receiving and responding to feedback are all ways of taking it a step further. The more a student has to do, and the greater variety of tasks they complete, the more active their brain and the better their chances of remembering the content.

There are several ways to categorise activities, such as ‘learning styles’ or similar. I’d see these as synthetic labels applied to a much more varied range of possibilities, but using them can help us all to make lessons more accessible. The bad news is that, just like active revision methods, such tasks are harder work than writing notes from a board. More effective, yes – but some students aren’t able to make that leap. I use the idea of ‘value for money’ when helping students grasp the idea that if the end result is understanding, then activities that don’t help aren’t worth spending time on.

Making notes

  • completing a cloze exercise
  • writing their own notes or paraphrasing the teacher’s ideas
  • adding (extra) examples from their own experience
  • producing a class set of notes or summary sentences
  • adding explanations/details to prepared notes (such as Powerpoint handouts)
  • using  Cornell notes system (at Wikipedia) or a prepared framework
  • reviewing notes after a lesson, perhaps just for a few minutes later that day or each week.

Printables: cornell notes as docx : cornell notes  as pdf (files include two variants on separate pages)

Verbal Questions

  • for any questions, students write predicted or probable answer on whiteboards before answering – a simpler version of this might be to give a few words they expect to come up (and then call bingo if right!)
  • ask students to only give half an answer
  • always have thinking/discussion/sharing time (pyramid idea) – using red/amber/green signs for confidence allows you to gauge when to move on
  • have students offer constructive criticism of each other’s ideas
  • use their words/phrases/answers to sum up ideas/concepts for written notes

Written Questions

  • students could include a markscheme, underlining key words they think must be included
  • ask students to predict their score and mark ‘difficult’ areas
  • marking own questions and keep track on ‘ready reference’ sheet of why they lose marks (key concepts, missed technical vocab, maths, misreading question – will often be a pattern)
  • when presented with a question, spend one minute as class discussing/suggesting strategy – keep ‘best practice’ guidelines visible
  • for multiple choice questions, students could extend answers with why that is corect answer (this is a useful way of ensuring answers to multiple choice HW are not simply copied)


  • ask students to make notes as they go, perhaps using Cornell system
  • before, give them (or show them, briefly) questions they will need to answer afterwards
  • ask them to write questions as they watch
  • give them a list of key terms they will need to define at end
  • tell them you expect a written review, as if printed in a magazine
  • tell them there is a mistake and there will be a prize for whoever spots it (best for old videos!)
  • ask them to record an updated version/trailer for it using cameras
  • storyboard the video in sections and turn it into summary notes on Powerpoint


Unpopular but true – a little extra work can make a huge difference. The following are not only excellent methods of revision, but can be used ‘little and often’ during a course or topic.

  • Summarise lesson notes (don’t just copy them out ‘neatly’).
  • Convert to mind map format, headings and key words etc.
  • Make revision cards, on paper or electronic ones.
  • Write three summary questions per lesson, with ‘ideal answers’.
  • Find, attempt and mark relevant practice questions, perhaps from a text book or revision guide. Appropriate questions from past papers will be online.

Learn it properly in lessons : Revise effectively : Perform well in the exam


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