Revision Cards – Process Not Product

2 May 2018

Author: Lorwyn Randall

Revision and metacognition

As we enter the exam period, teachers are busy employing their most persuasive techniques for convincing pupils to ‘get revising outside of lessons!’ However, there’s little guarantee that many of the students we are most desperate to help achieve will have the metacognitive ability needed to ‘hover above’ themselves as learners and ask:

1.       What are my strengths and weaknesses? (knowledge of self)

2.       What does the task involve? (knowledge of task)

3.       What would be the best strategy for doing this? (knowledge of strategies)

As teachers we often assume that an ability to perceive oneself as a learner is a given, or something that everyone possesses to a greater or lesser extent. But this ‘meta’ element of metacognition (the ‘beyond’ cognition bit, if you like) is far from something we should assume that all of our pupils can do. Arguably, one of the very reasons metacognition is identified as +7 months additional progress on the EEF Toolkit is precisely because the deficit in this way of thinking for some pupils can be so great then when properly addressed it levers significant progress for those who’ve never really developed it before.

‘Knowledge of strategies’.

When it comes to revision, teachers tend to talk about it in terms of #3 …‘revision strategies’. However, many students confuse strategy for resource. Put another way, they focus on product and not process. Take the humble ‘flash card’ for example. Many pupils have, in recent weeks, looked around and seen a flurry of A6 cards being produced by their peers. As a result, gradually lots of pupils have caught the flash card bug and are busy creating a stack of their own. And it’s easy to see why. Making these cards ticks three big boxes:

a)       I feel busy – TICK!

b)      I’m creating output – TICK!

c)       I look busy – TICK!

Of course, the issue is that feeling busy isn’t the same as learning deeply. A product in the external world is not any guarantee that it’s been internalised. And looking busy is designed to satisfy various stakeholders in your life – including teachers and parents – rather than creating genuine exam readiness.

And so it is on us as teachers to challenge the illusion that creating a beautiful, colour coded card is somehow ‘job done’ and help our pupils understand the theory behind flashcards as well as their most effective uses.

Flashcard theory

Each time we recall information without seeing it in front of us, we re-consolidate prior learning. Repeating this process reinforces our memory of the content of that learning. Flashcards are a simple and effective tool for allowing students to engage in active recall, a process proven to strengthen the neuronal connections that underpin our memories.

The forgetting curve is an enduring hypothesis in Psychology that was originally proposed by Hermann Ebbinghau as far back as 1885! Although his research was incomplete and not as secure as today’s research methodologies, teachers will be familiar with the curve through their own experience of teaching students.

There are now hundreds of studies that support Ebbinghau’s original claim, along with his then revolutionary approach to improving memory over time: ‘repetition based on active recall’.

How can pupils best use flashcards?

Flash cards most effective when they are learner generated and used over time. Re-visiting the full stack of the cards on a weekly basis provides students with the spaced practice needed to strengthen the memory traces required for long term recall.

When a flashcard relates to a concept such as ‘democracy’ that requires more than a closed or one-word answer, evidence suggests that a written process is most beneficial for students’ learning. Dunlosky, who has contributed to much of the research on flashcards, recommends students writing out the definition and then turning over the flashcard to check the accuracy of their response.

In a single sitting, students can take a more diagnostic approach to the use of flashcards, ‘dropping’ cards from the stack that have already been memorised. However, flashcards should be used as part of a model of distributed practice and the evidence suggests that returning previously ‘learned’ cards in rotation is more effective for long term recall.

Karpick and Roedigeer found that students who had taken the ‘learned’ cards out of the stack and thus out of the revision process got 30% correct answers in tests compared with 70% achieved by students who initially took them out but then later returned cards to the stack in order to revisit, retest and re-consolidate on a weekly basis.

A final thought

As a teacher of GCSE, I know that flashcards should form part of a marathon approach to learning in which strategies such as flashcards are used over time, even embedded in schemes of work as starters and plenaries that allow for old as well as new learning to be revisited. In truth, my Year 11s are busy creating revision cards for the sprint finish that is flashcard season. Still, there’s some consolation in knowing they’re fully aware that creating them is only the start…

Lorwyn Randall is a teacher at Kingsbridge Community College. He is also Director of the Kingsbridge Research School Network.

Posted on 2 May 2018
Posted in: Blog, Evidence

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