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  2. Our Pedagogy
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  4. Revision

How should students revise for exams?

What we propose below is based on the work of:

  • Murre, J. & Dros, J. (2015) Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve
  • Dunlosky J. et al (2013) Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology
  • Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M. and Caviglioli, O. (2018) Understanding how we learn.

There are plenty of other studies too, including: Cepeda et al (2008), Bell & Limber (2010), Lonka et al (1994), Nist & Kirby (1989), Cioffi et al (1986), Gurung et al (2010), Spitzer (1939), Butler (2010), Karpicke & Blunt (2011).

The research concludes there is ineffective revision, inefficient revision and effective revision.

Ineffective revision

Rereading work and text books is completely ineffective and should be discouraged. This includes simply buying revision guides for students and handing them out in the belief that they will have a positive effect on students. When a student simply reads or rereads their books or notes, it creates an illusion of knowing, when in fact many studies show students get nothing out of it.

Using highlighter pens on notes is also surprisingly ineffective. Studies show it does little to boost performance and it may actually hurt performance on higher-level questions that require inference making. Although extremely popular as a revision technique, using highlighter pens to highlight key words and concepts although more active than simply reading, is not active enough.

Inefficient revision

Making notes and summaries can work, but it is often inefficient and there are better strategies for maximising performance. Using revision guides as a source of concise notes and then attempting to recall and rewrite the material can help, but research has shown that effective summarising requires extensive training for students which makes this strategy less feasible. Notes are significantly more effective if they are written as questions and answers using the Cornell method of note-taking.

Many students like to get together with their friends to study. When that happens, the time will be used less efficiently, even if they are using a good technique than if they were doing it on their own. Revising with friends is often not as effective as it seems.

Effective revision

There are only three proven strategies for effective revision: spaced practice, retrieval practice and interleaving.

Space practice

Attempting to retrieve knowledge frequently. Doing the same practice again and again over a long period of time. Just because you think you have learned something, don’t put it to one side. Although there is some merit to “cramming” at the end of a course, or days before the exam, it is far more effective to turn knowledge gained from working memory to long term memory. The only way to successfully achieve this is to start the revision process early and do little and often. Spending hours on revision is just not effective. It is far better to do short bursts of twenty minutes to half and hour at a time.

So when should you start revising? While it is typical for schools to aim to finish a course between 3-4 months before the exam to allow enough time for revision, this should not be necessary. Instead, the revision process should start after the very first topic has been taught and then continue until the exam. Leaving revision to the end of a course does not allow for spaced practice which has been proven to be more successful.

Low-stakes quizzing can be surprisingly effective at keeping knowledge fresh in a student’s mind if used over a long period of time. Consider including a multiple choice quiz using diagnostic questions in every lesson as a starter or plenary activity.

Retrieval practice

Instead of rereading content, e.g., using revision guides or flashcards passively, challenge students to write the content and definitions instead. This has a much bigger impact on performance than just reading. Using past papers has the biggest impact on revision. However, be mindful of using products that claim to cover the course, but in fact do not get the pitch right. It is important that questions cover the specification in sufficent depth, but also do not go beyond it. Too many authors include questions that students will simply never see in a real exam. Compare the specifications, topic guides and any clarification documents provided by exam boards to revision guides you intend to use first.

Creating mind maps or spider diagrams from all the content of a unit using the minimum number of words to ease recall can be helpful. Using notes if they are sufficient, text books, knowledge organisers or revision guides. Create the map with concentric rings with an increasing level of detail from inside to outside the diagram. The inner ring for “what”, i.e. the key terms and definitions, one ring for, “how”, i.e. how that concept works, and one ring for, “why”, i.e. why that is necessary, or comparing one concept to another. Once complete, remove all the text so you are left with the skeleton of the diagram only. Now periodically challenge students to fill in the skeleton with the content. Compare what was created with the completed map. Not only will you create a visualisation in your mind of the topic (because the structure of the diagram does not change), but you will more easily see what students remember and what they don’t.


Recent research has shown mixing up topics that have been previously taught is three times more effective than ‘blocking’ (only looking at one topic at a time). Quiz students on a variety of topics they have learned to date within a single quiz. When teaching, making the links between concepts explicit. E.g.

An array…

…is like a variable

…but has multiple values of the same data type instead of a single value,

…uses indexes to load and store elements in the structure.

…Therefore requires an index register in the CPU,

…and contiguous addresses in RAM.

…This is why it is static,

…because if you wanted to increase the number of indexes you would have to recreate the structure elsewhere in memory,

…because another program may be using the next address,

…recreating the structure is inefficient and should therefore be avoided.

The Craig’n’Dave path to success

Here are our six steps to success which has seen the students of Craig and Dave have some of the best results in the country (ALPS 2) within a fully comprehensive setting:

  1. Redefine revision in your classroom as a continual practice throughout the course, and not something you only do at the end. Smart Revise is perfect for achieving this easily, with no additional planning.
  2. Do as much programming and studying algorithms as you can throughout the whole course.
  3. Focus lessons on answering key questions, not achieving a set of objective and outcomes.
  4. Low-stakes questioning on all the previously taught material since the beginning of the course in every lesson and/or for homework. Aim for topic mastery rather than superficial learning.
  5. Keywords: write definitions, don’t simply display them on the wall, and use them frequently for retrieval practice. Make active, not passive displays.
  6. Practice exam questions with students: show them how to answer using “walking-talking” approaches.

Smart Revise is our flagship product built on our own classroom experience. It takes the three most powerful revision techniques of space practice, retrieval practice and interleaving to provide students with the most effective revision experience, if used regularly from the start of the course. Teachers frequently tell us their students have made huge gains in attainment since using Smart Revise. It’s no surprise, unlike all the other online revision tools available, it’s also built on the research!

What makes Smart Revise different is that it doesn’t just present all students with the same questions as an end of topic test, but instead learns from individual students when they answer questions to deliver them a personalised revision experience. Very quickly after starting to use Quiz mode in Smart Revise, students will have completely different question streams tailored to them. Since the question stream is infinite because the same questions are recycled depending on “mastery”, spaced practice, retrieval practice and interleaving is achieved effortlessly.

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