You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 52 and if your teen has ever gone blank or freezes in an exam, has wished they could memorise information better or you see them revising, but you’re not sure they’re doing it in the best way then this episode is for you.
Hello Very Important Parents and carers. I hope you’re doing great and that your week is going well.
We are still in exam mode right now. With finals for those sitting GCSEs and A-Levels and semester and trial exams down under. This is the third episode in our exam episodes trilogy on the podcast, but it can totally stand alone, so no need to have listened to episodes 50 or 51 before this, but if you haven’t caught those, then definitely go listen to them after.
Plus, heads up for you if you are listening to this as it drops on Tuesday 30th May - love you keen bees and appreciate you - the live parent webinar all about Exam Technique - and how your teen can excel in their exam prep and performance IS TONIGHT! So that’s 7.30pm AEST Tue 30th May - at www.gradetransformation.com/exams
It's where I’m going to explain to you and SHOW YOU all the ins and outs of how exams really work; how they are written, are marked… All the things you are totally allowed to know, but most parents and students don’t know they don’t know - that unconscious incompetence we talked about a few weeks ago in the 4 phases of mastery - and don’t actually realise they need or realise they’re missing. Like blind spots we just don’t see for ourselves.
This is a big part of what I’m going to focus on in the webinar - the 3 exam performance killers that are subtly sabotaging your teen’s results without them realising. I’ll explain exactly what they are, how they actually show up so you can quickly see if any of them are at play for your teen, and of course how to overcome them so your teen not only maximises their results but also walks into any exam with confidence and no longer has to deal with - yes the disappointment when they think it’s gone well, but actually their result isn’t what they either wanted or expected, that’s where those blind spots are happening, those 3 exam performance killers - but also not having to deal with the confusion and doubt that comes with that, the dinks to their confidence, their doubts about their capability or how to tackle things going forwards.
So go to www.gradetransformation.com/exams to save your seat for free, and I will be recording it, so if you’re listening to this afterwards, the replay will be available for a limited time - just for 6 days - at that same web address, so head there and if you’re quick you might still be able to get in on that.
So, to today’s exam focus - exam revision.
Because I do often focus on the APPLICATION element of the study success formula - Knowledge + Application = Success. Because in my experience, that is the part that is most often the weakest link in the chain for students = especially hardworking students. And if you’re only as strong as your weakest link, then we need to get that fixed. However, the knowledge part IS still important - it’s half of the equation.
And when it comes to exams, having great subject knowledge to walk into the exam with, requires revision of the subject content, and revising in a way that means that the information goes in, stays in and flows easily from brain to paper in the exam hall.
I’ve spoken to so many parents who tell me that their teen freezes or goes blank in an exam, or runs out of time to cover everything they want to or need to because they’re revising in ways that just don’t feel very efficient or are also perhaps - in fact I would go so far as to say, likely - not very effective. So your teen feels like they’re being productive and studying hard, but it’s probably not doing as much as they think - or at least the outcome is not matching the hours or effort.
So let’s break down what’s going on in those situations and how to make everything much more efficient and more rewarding in terms of what they get done and is taken into the exam and turns into marks on the exam paper.
By far, the biggest mistake I see students making when it comes to revision is revising passively rather than actively. And what that means is that they are doing stuff - they are doing revision-type actions, but they aren’t actually having to process or do anything with the information. When actually they need to be processing and converting the information, converting it from one format to another. And here’s how you know, how you can tell if your teen is revising in a way that is active or passive.
Could what they are producing, be done by someone who doesn’t actually know or understand the content? In fact, as a starting point even before we get to that - is anything actually being produced? If they are just reading over notes, or just highlighting notes or watching a tutorial video, then they aren’t actually producing anything at all, so that is definitely passive. Anyone could read pages from a text book or notes taken in class but not understand them or retain them. Anyone could watch a video, and not understand or retain what was in it.
So first of all your teen needs to be producing something from what they’re revising. And secondly, it needs to ideally be in a different format. Something that proves they’ve processed AND they’ve understood the content.
So, there is nothing wrong with using a tutorial video or a text book or their notes for revision, but it’s what they’re DOING with them that matters.
So, if they are watching a video, are they making their own summary notes from it, are they drawing out a mindmap of the content from it, are they sketching and annotating a diagram? If they are using notes, could they turn that information into a diagram or a flow chart or a timeline, or even, could they produce their own two minute video summing up all the important content from those notes. Now, I’m not talking about them making Youtube or TikTok style tutorial videos, because that would likely be more time consuming than other just as effective options, and they will likely start focusing on all the things other than the actual content, but they COULD perhaps challenge themselves to give you or someone else a 2minute presentation of the topic or the case study, or the process they have just reviewed. If they only had 2 minutes to explain that content there and then, for example in a super-low tech video, how would they put it across, could they explain it verbally or visually? That would work. That would be turning written or printed info into verbal.
So, it’s important that they are converting information that they’re revising because that is one of the best ways to ensure their brain is having to process it.
We’ve all had that thing where we’ve read a page and then realised we haven’t taken any of it in. And that is not what we want to happen with revision - it’s not what we want any time - but definitely not with revision.
There are two elements to revision: memorising the information and understanding it. We might understand something when we learn it, but we can’t remember it. Or we could memorise something by rote, but it doesn’t mean we understand it.
So, by having to convert the information from one format to another, by having to explain something in a different way, we have to understand it. I always remember an educator leading a PD - a professional development day - I was on once - who said ‘can they explain it in crayons?’
If your students can’t break down and simplify a complex topic, they don’t understand it well enough. If they can’t explain each step or demonstrate a process or justify a quote, then they don’t understand it well enough.
Now, of course, this ideally needs to be happening at the point of learning the information. We really don’t want them trying to understand and get to grips with it at the point of revision. That should have already happened, but making that a part of revision is important.
Memorising is really what we consider revision to be about. But memorising is not just factual information, it is also about reviewing and memorising the understanding OF that information. And memorising something is not as straightforward as just going back over it repeatedly.
We need to not only have that info stored in our brains, we have to be able to retrieve it and have it flow back out, we have to put it back down on paper. Which is where we have to overcome the issue of what I call the ‘Familiarity Delusion’. Mistaking familiarity with the content for fully memorising and being able to re-produce that content. The familiarity delusion is usually the reason why students feel like they go blank or freeze in an exam.
They think they know the content, when actually they are simply familiar with it. This is why re-writing notes or copying diagrams or copying out whatever it is over and over, in the hope that repetition will burn it into their memory is not an effective way to revise. That only works for super-short term memory - a matter of seconds, maybe a couple of mins max.
Because just copying something also does not require any higher level cognition. It’s too easy and doesn’t actually require anything from our brains.
Now, summarising or condensing notes does require more cognition and processing.
But there are degrees of this. Just cutting out a few words - that and’s or the’s - is not going to do much. But fully condensing, re-wording, colour-coding and adapting information will do more.
So, it’s really important that your teen truly considers what they are doing when they are creating revision resources or doing their revision. Something can feel really productive and LOOK impressive, but it might not actually be very effective. An example of this is revision notes or revision cards. I see some students making stacks and stacks of beautiful revision cards, and they carry them around feeling like here is all the knowledge they have.
Which, side-note can actually lead to a false sense of security. And is one of the problems in itself. And those cards might LOOK like they have condensed information or colour coded it, but what they’ve actually done is just transfer or move info from bigger pages to smaller cards. The cards are smaller but the information is pretty much the same. And they have USED colour but the colour selection doesn’t actually MEAN anything. They haven’t truly converted or processed anything. This is when they feel like they are working hard, and indeed they are putting in the hours - and the ink - but they aren’t actually working hard, because their brain is not actually having to work hard to produce that outcome. We have to DO something for the information to go in and be able to actually retrieve it.
So, here are super-specific, proven ways to turn passive into active revision:
- if they really want to create revision cards, have them get a full page of information - maybe a written page of class notes or a page from a text book onto one card to ensure they are truly processing and distilling information. And not one card as in both sides and they’re writing in size 6 font handwriting. One side of one card. And yes, they may say that they need more space than one side of one card, but here’s the key: Revision is not about getting down information, it’s not about learning the information,. Those things should have already happened. It’s about reviewing the information. And having to make careful judgements about what makes it on the card and what doesn’t is part of making the brain DO something with that information.
It’s making links, it’s making decisions, and that is what will commit that content to the long term memory of days or weeks, rather than short term as in seconds or a few minutes. And on the cards, have them use a SYSTEM for colour coding the info. Like red for key words and terminology and definitions, blue for processes, green for examples or case studies. The purpose of this is not to produce pretty cards, it’s about retaining information in a way that it can be easily recalled. So colour coding is great because it gives the brain more visual cues, but make it MEAN something. Plus, just their brain having to make the decision of which colour should this be, is them processing that information.
Then have them USE those cards, lay them out on the floor into a visual mind map or flow chart where they make links and connections between them, so they are using kinaesthetic and visual learning, maybe then even draw that out onto an A3 page from memory- we don’t just want them copying remember.
Or they could order them from what they know the best to know the least, and then focus on testing themselves on the worst ones. Or order them as a time line of events or steps in a process. Or rank them from most significant to least according to a particular situation or perspective.
Again, it’s not about the actual order, it’s about them having to consider and think through the information to make those decisions. If they don’t truly understand the concepts or events, then they won’t know which one is most important or significant or goes first or last.
I always like to use examples with cards because I know so many students are adamant they want to make revision cards and sometimes trying to persuade them to do something completely different is too much of a stretch, which I completely understand.
So we just want them making or using them as effectively as possible. Revision cards aren’t bad in themselves - it’s just that often they’re being created or used in passive ways - information just written out without much processing or converting and then they are just ‘read through’ or used to test from, where there could be much more active opportunities.
But there are an infinite number of other options too, and these might suit your teen if they aren’t a big lover of making notes or they know that they are much more of a visual learner for example. Can they turn a written account into a timeline? Can they turn a diagram into an explanatory paragraph, or a video tutorial into a mind map summary? Can they turn a novel into a comic strip of significant events and quotes? And nothing artistic here - stick figures and symbols are great, works of art are time consuming and are not focusing on what is important. In fact, it is often the students who are less artistic that get most benefit from these sorts of revision activities, because they have to work harder, they are more challenged by it, which means their brain is having to do more and will therefore likely remember more of the info they’re dealing with.
Remember, it’s not about producing something amazing looking, it’s about processing the information in order to produce it.
And on this note, just to go a bit deeper with this for a second, have them challenge themselves to not have an unlimited or unspecified number of boxes for the comic strip.
Have say 10 boxes, and if you ONLY have 10 boxes what would you put in them? Maybe they only need 9. Don’t put ‘the end’ in box 10 - yes, I’ve seen that plenty of times. Have themselves really think - what other event is relevant or related that would make the whole thing 10 boxes? Or maybe they would ideally like 14 boxes. In which case, which things are less significant and could be left out, or how could two issues or concepts be combined into one.
Anything that makes them think and consider and make decisions or connections is what we want here. And often these types of revision activities will, as a bonus, often be quicker than the more traditional ones. Drawing a series of stick figures and speech bubbles or producing a timeline to explain key events in history for example should be faster than writing out all the information as a page of notes.
And definitely doing past papers and practise questions counts as active revision. They are having to take the original information and adapt it to what the question is asking. AND they are obviously getting instant feedback on whether they truly KNOW the information or are just FAMILIAR with it. If they think they know a topic, but then struggle to recall it for an answer, then that’s an alert.
So, I hope that gives you and your teen some ideas and tips to have them revising actively and reduce or ideally stop any revision that might be more passive. So that their time and effort gives them maximum return on effort because that information goes in and stays in, and flows easily from brain to paper in the exam hall.
Don’t forget to come join me at the exam technique webinar for loads more practical tips and insider info on how exams really work - go to www.gradetransformation.com/exams to register or for the limited time replay if you’re listening to this after the 30th May.
I hope you have a great week and I’ll meet you back here next week!