“But What About My Social Life?”

This was the response from a student when I pointed out that with their first exam eight days away, they should probably be staying in revising most nights between now and then. They seemed amazed that I should expect them to be putting their exam preparation first, even though some of them are close to grade boundaries or are hoping to use their grade to access sixth form or college courses. These are clearly kids who would have failed the marshmallow test when younger.

You’ve guessed it – this is another revision tips post. The title of the lesson I gave was ‘Revision vs Facebook’ and focussed on web resources that students could use to revise effectively. I’ve shown them the flash card programs before (see Revising Online) but wanted to give them some alternatives. The two concepts we looked at were producing summaries using frameworks and making mind or concept maps.


A blank piece of paper is intimidating. I’ve found that many students take time getting started with revision, not just because they have a tendancy to procrastinate but because they don’t know where to start. For a while now I’ve told them to finish one revision session by writing a heading on a new piece of paper for the concepts they need to do next. This sheet then goes into their revision guide, sticking out at the right page. When they start the next session all they need to do is find the book and they can start without thinking. This is based on the idea of making a ‘to do list’ while wearing a ‘boss hat’ so you can get things done when less focussed. (Not as stupid as it sounds – see this Lifehacker post for more info).

Producing a framework for revision can be done in seconds, but it may be worth putting a little more time into it. A list of topic headings give a framework, for example. These might be added to a Cornell layout, as I’ve posted about before (and some of my students tell me really helps). Copying and pasting a few past paper questions on the same topic can set a clear objective: students can list bullet points that summarise the main ideas behind their answers. With luck they’ll notice common themes in the questions or, if they are sufficiently self-critical, will pick up on common weaknesses in their answers.

In a recent lesson I divided a page into three and asked students to write five key ideas under each of three headings for enzymes. This took seconds so I’m not going to produce a printable version, but it looked like this:

 Over several lessons I refined this idea and produced different versions of a ‘leaflet’. I suspected my younger students would get a lot more out of the concept of making a proper leaflet, so produced one they could fold and add to their folders. This gave a more structured approach than simply three headings. If you print this double-sided (flip on short side!) it will fold nicely to give three different views.

printable: energy leaflet as pdf

For my GCSE class, I produced and had copied for them a double sided leaflet with headings, a total of six columns with prompts that will hopefully flag up the most important bits. (Which in a way makes me sad – does it seem to anyone else that being able to fit the key ideas for an exam that makes up a quarter of a GCSE on two sides of A4 is a little worrying?) I’ve made an electronic copy available on our school VLE so they can print extra copies, or make their own versions with extra copies of a single column (for those who use the tried and tested method of cover, write, check, repeat). And I’ve suggested that if they filled in one of the columns several times, using different resources online (Bitesize and Skoool were the two I pointed them at), they would probably get the facts straight in their heads. I even suggested they could fill it in while listening to the relevant podcasts from the Naked Scientists, also available on Bitesize.

printable: AQA B2 leaflet as pdf

Only one student noticed that, once more, I was strongly suggesting making something rather than simply reading. Or is it too optimistic to hope that they all believe and understand this now and take it for granted that reading isn’t revision?

Mind Maps

Am I the only person who sees the constant disagreement about how mind/concept maps ‘should’ be drawn as something similar to a religious war? There seem to be hundreds of sites, all with their instructions for the one, ‘true’ way. I’m a bit more relaxed and give my students just a few basic rules:

  • all lines show links between ideas
  • the lines mean links – consequnces, subgroups or similar – so don’t be afraid to draw them as arrows
  • pretty colours are pointless unless they signify something

This does mean that sometimes a concept map turns into something like a flowchart, or circles are drawn around all examples of something to make it vaguely venn diagram-esque. If that’s a word. Which it probably isn’t.

Sorry, it’s late. Anyway. There are tons of places, online and off, to look for information on mind mapping. This may need to be a whole separate post at some point [scribbles in a notebook] but for now there are two websites I was going to flag up. I’m sure both have advantages and disadvantages, and that there are may others that you may feel do the job better (comments section below, please feel free to correct me), but for now these are two I’d like to direct you towards.

I’d never heard of MindMeister but I like it. At least partly I like it because there’s content there already, which my students have already been directed to, for their coming exams. A guy who tutors science and stuff has put at least these two, and probably many more. AQA B2 and AQA P2 are nice summaries students could use to consider how well they currently understand the topic, and perhaps even extend it. Naturally making a mind map is always better than using one, but a starting point is still useful. If nothing else these show what can be done with the software. 

The other site is called bubbl.us and I’m still playing with it. I know I like it, but I haven’t quite figured out all the bits and pieces yet. I like that I can share what I’ve produced and I see this as a really nice way to work collaboratively. My students (although they don’t know it yet) will soon have a homework to contribute to such a mind map. One I’m fairly happy with is linked from the thumbnail below.

9 days and counting…

It amazes me sometimes. Both of my Year 10 groups have their next pair of (AQA) module exams on Wednesday next week. Both had homework set to produce evidence of revision (a long list of suggestions was made available) so I knew they were doing something. Both groups walked in to their lesson today and expressed total shock that they would be doing a past paper in exam conditions. They seemed surprised that I expected them to have calculators and pens for said exam. And please note, I teach in a good school, in a good area, with good results. Over the past few years I’ve started to come to the conclusion that these results are despite the kids, not because of them.

Anyway, complaint over. I wanted to share two activities that I’ve produced to help them with understanding, and distinguishing, different methods of heat transfer.

The first is fairly straightforward – in fact it is adapted from an activity I found in a textbook older than I am. Students are asked to explain various phenomena, such as wrapping chips in newspaper to keep them warm, or the rising of a hot air balloon, using key facts about conduction, convection and radiation. I ask them to look for common features in their explanations once they are finished. If time is short different groups can work on one of the three methods rather than completing all of the explanations. Ideally explanations should be shared with the class, perhaps by having them write up their main points on the board as they work and summing up at the end.

If there is time, I then ask them to complete the second activity. If not, it can be done independantly or at a later point, or perhaps as homework. In this, they are given some key phrases which can be used as ‘signposts’ towards specific kind of heat transfer. If a component is painted black, for example, I explain that radiation is probably a factor. Once the phrases and words are sorted into three categories they are asked to use them in a series of activities, such as producing a mind map or writing questions with these answers.

The two activities are complementary; the idea is to help students realise that by focusing on the key points, they can often identify which kind of heat transfer is most relevant. That domestic ‘radiators’ are painted white suggests that radiation is not the most important way they heat the room, for example.

printables: CCR explained as docx : CCR signposts as docx 

 Good luck to all colleagues who have similar students and hope these are useful – please let me know if so, if not or if you have any ideas I can steal…

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.