April marks the beginning of spring and the promise of lighter, sunnier days ahead — but for pupils across the UK, it also marks the final month of school before exam season begins. The associated nerves and anxiety are bound to be shared by parents and carers, too, as they wonder how best to support their children — especially if the material is unfamiliar.
We put all of the latest learning theory into our TUTOR platform, designed to offer an affordable alternative to 1-1 tuition. This three-part series for parents seeks to share some of these ideas behind learning and revision, alongside practical strategies parents and carers can use at home to help ensure their child enters the exam hall feeling as calm and prepared as possible.
Revision for exams will dominate most lessons at this time of the year, and teachers up and down the country will be telling their pupils to make sure they are revising at home too. But what does successful revision look like, and how can parents and carers help their children in revising effectively? Read on for our eight top tips for supporting your child in developing effective revision strategies.
It can be tempting to spend two hours designing a beautiful, colourful revision timetable that is then never looked at again — but a truly useful revision timetable is less about appearance and more about the timing of topics.
It goes without saying that revision time should be spread across subjects, with more time spent on those subjects your child finds the hardest. But research also tells us that the time between topics is just as important as the time spent on them. If, after learning something new, your child looks at the content again the next day, and again two days later, and again a week later, they will remember significantly more than if they waited a week to revisit it. A well thought-out revision timetable should include short time slots for revisiting, in brief, previous learning to make sure it sticks.
Another revision technique often favoured by children is reading over notes or textbooks, highlighting chunks of material and then copying out notes — but while it can feel like they are working hard, this is not an effective way of remembering information.
Every revision session should include a test on the material without access to notes — this is what teachers call ‘retrieval practice’, and it’s all about firing up your memory by forcing you to find, or ‘retrieve’, old material.
Have your child turn their notes over and then, in one colour of pen, write down or mindmap everything they can remember about a topic within a time limit (say, five minutes). After the time is up, have them turn their notes over and use a second colour of pen to add in everything they’ve missed. Finally, have them repeat the first part of the task, recalling everything they can without access to notes. They should see that, on the second time around, they are able to remember much more.
As a follow-up, have your child look over all the material they wrote down using the second pen colour — this represents all the knowledge they are not yet confident in. This is the material they should add to their next revision timetable slot for that subject, using the timings identified in tip 1.
Every time you ask your brain to switch between tasks, there is a short drop in efficiency - a bit like a relay team, whose 4 x 100m time will always be slower than the sum of their individual 100m times, because of the time lost in passing the baton. This is known as ‘context switching’, and the many distractions of the internet have made it a huge problem for anyone trying to focus on one thing.
Every time your child is distracted by a new message, or a video, their brain is being asked to context switch, and this will slow them down. Phones and other internet-enabled devices can be incredibly valuable learning tools, but as soon as your child needs to focus on offline tasks like answering practice questions or completing the retrieval task in tip 3, encourage them to go phone-free. This only needs to be for short periods of time, but it will be a huge help in their ability to focus.
While we are sleeping, our brains decide what information needs storing in the long-term memory and what can be discarded. Studies have even shown that a good night’s sleep can improve memory retention by as much as 40% — you can read more about this in Matthew Walker’s excellent book ‘Why We Sleep’. For older children in particular, the temptation to stay up late revising is huge — but this will actually be preventing your child from learning as effectively as they could. As much as possible, children should be switching off devices at least an hour before bedtime and prioritising a full night of uninterrupted sleep.
When first starting to revise, keeping topics separate is helpful for improving recall and confidence. However, exams will demand children to move swiftly between topics, choosing the appropriate method and approach each time. It is important that children practise this ahead of time — this could mean working through sample exam papers, but it could be as simple as writing a range of questions and answers onto flashcards, and having a friend or family member test them on different topics at random.
Revision doesn’t have to mean hours sitting at a desk surrounded by books — it can be as simple as pulling a set of flashcards out of your pocket while waiting for a bus, or using the ad break of a TV show to answer a practice question, before checking it in the next ad break. For many children, simply sitting down to start feels like a huge task, so a little-and-often approach can go a long way. Encourage your child to set a timer if they are struggling to get going — and stop when the timer runs out, even if they feel like they can keep going. The more revision sessions end with the feeling that it wasn’t so bad and they could have carried on, the less put off they’ll be at the thought of starting again the next day.
We like to think that the most successful people are also the most motivated, but this isn’t really the case: motivation comes from feeling that you can be successful, and the most successful people are those who can keep going even when they aren’t motivated.
If your child has plenty of opportunities to feel successful, even if that success is spending five minutes on a single task without looking at their phone, then they are more likely to keep going. Conversely, long and late-running revision sessions where they are too tired to retain information and frustrated from what they perceive to be a lack of progress is only going to add to their anxiety and stress.
Let your child teach you things that they know and you don’t; ask them questions you know they know the answer to; challenge them to work for slightly less time than you believe they can manage; celebrate every completed task or extra mark gained. The exam is of course important, but it’s more important for your child to believe in their own potential — this will take them further than any grade.
We’ve designed TUTOR with all of the tips above taken into account:
Our TUTOR platform provides an affordable alternative to 1-1 tuition, offering pupils access to 1800 individual maths lessons from counting to calculus. If your child's school doesn't currently offer access to TUTOR, you are able to sign up yourself - head to our TUTOR for Families page to find out more.