Planning: 6 active recall strategies to tackle procrastination

When it comes to revision, we know that most students procrastinate. In fact, researchers estimated that, in academic settings in the US, over 70 per cent of students exhibited this behaviour. 

Often, students procrastinate because they do not know how to revise or where to start with their revision. Sometimes, procrastination can even look like revision: rereading and highlighting notes, creating beautiful flashcards that never get used, as well as other activities that make students feel like they are revising even though nothing is being remembered. This is especially true for disadvantaged students who may be the first members of their families working towards attending university.  

As teachers, we need to set the conditions for revision: we need to provide them with techniques that are proven to work and model how to use them. We know that if all staff consistently model one technique to support students with their revision it can have the biggest impact. 

Below, we have listed six revision techniques that we believe are the most effective in the classroom. The central component is the effortful retrieval of knowledge from long-term memory.

Without this, students have not truly revised so much as revisited their knowledge, which will make it harder for them to use it when they really need it – in an exam.

1. Look, cover, write, check

The key benefit of the “look, cover, write, check” technique (LCWC) is that when our brains have to work hard to retrieve information, we remember it better in the long term, as well as provide a more accurate picture of what we know and what we need to revisit it. 

How to teach LCWC

Students should read information, cover it up, attempt to write it from memory and then check they have written it correctly. 

Teachers should model LCWC to students using a visualiser, narrating to them how to approach revision and explaining the purpose and technique of each step as they go. It’s important to explain to students that they should be chunking the information they revise and that this should become sequentially more challenging in terms of complexity and quantity. 

Be sure to provide students with opportunities to practise in lessons, so you can monitor and support them where necessary to address any issues.

Where do teachers go wrong?

Teachers accept superficial performance of LCWC without checking that it is really having an impact on students’ recall of knowledge, or believe that if students are working in silence then they must be revising, when in reality, students are just copying their notes rather than covering the notes first. 

2. Cornell Notes

Often, students struggle to structure notes in a way that will also make them useful revision tools. Cornell note-taking addresses this by giving students a simple but effective structure that helps to make their notes productive and valuable for later revision. 

How to teach Cornell Notes

Cornell Notes use a three-part page setup: notes, questions or cues, and summary. The first time you use them with students, you should live model the technique, and take notes in response to the information you are going to teach them. Split your page into three, making a wide margin on the left of the page for questions and cues, and a two-inch section at the bottom for a summary, leaving the remaining space for the notes. 

Set aside dedicated time in lessons for students to practise using Cornell Notes, paraphrasing what they heard or read into their own concise notes, using every other line so they can make changes if necessary. 

Model using Cornell Notes as a revision tool by covering up the notes section and recalling the information based on the questions and cues, or use LCWC to revise the key points in the summary. 

Where do teachers go wrong?

Teachers do not explicitly model or give time for supporting sections of Cornell Notes (questions, cues and summary), so they become another form of unstructured notes for students. 

3. Mnemonics

Mnemonics are sequences or lists of information that you want students to remember, using the first letters to create a memorable word or phrase. 

How to teach mnemonics

First, think about the information you want students to learn and whether a mnemonic could help them: it could be a single word (such as BEEF to describe the steps of a basketball shot – balance, eyes, elbow, follow-through), or a sentence using each first letter (such as My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos for the planets of the solar system).

Introduce the mnemonic when teaching the topic for the first time, and remember that they are much more effective when they have stories and images attached to them. For example, Mrs Nerg for the seven life processes (movement, respiration, sensitivity, nutrition, excretion, reproduction and growth) is more effective if students can link this to a picture of an actual person called Mrs Nerg.

Mention the mnemonic every single time you come back to the information, and model the use of it for recall for students. 

Where do teachers go wrong?

Mnemonics are introduced at the start of a topic but never returned to, so their memorable qualities are lost and they do not aid students’ recall. 

4. Self-quizzing

We know that students learn more effectively when they test themselves because they have to think hard to recall the information from their memory. 

How to teach self-quizzing

Whenever students receive or create revision materials, discuss and explicitly instruct them how they should use these to revise. Take the time to model the process of self-quizzing, and show students how you would create, revise for, and respond to a self-generated quiz on revision materials. 

Provide students with the opportunity to practise self-quizzing within a lesson, and share excellent examples from students who have created quizzes that deliberately target gaps in their understanding. This should encourage students to create quizzes on topics they find difficult, rather than aiming for superficial success by focusing on topics they already know. 

Once students are comfortable with self-quizzing, encourage them to practise interleaving topics so they mix recently taught material with things they previously learned.

Where do teachers go wrong?

Students do not include challenging questions, because they prefer to feel the success of answering questions they already know. This is not picked up on or challenged by teachers, meaning self-quizzing becomes less effective. To mitigate this, create a checklist of key knowledge with students that they can refer to. 

5. Brain dump

This is where students simply write everything they remember about a topic, either as notes or a mind map. This allows students to move their current knowledge about a topic onto paper so that they can then begin to empirically visualise what they know and can remember about the topics they are studying and the links between different topics and concepts. 

How to teach brain dump

Model the process to students, stressing that they should not be concerned about structure or connections at the first, but simply write down whatever comes into their memory. Next, encourage students to make connections between different chunks of knowledge and expand their notes using “how” and “why” questions. 

Make sure they have time to check what they’ve written against another revision source, and tell them to add anything they’ve missed in green pen, emphasising that this is what they should focus on in revision. 

Where do teachers go wrong?

Brain dump exacerbates rather than addresses gaps in learning because students do not know what they don’t know, and therefore, their original misconceptions and/or gaps in knowledge remain. It causes anxiety in students as a blank page can be intimidating. This can cause panic and a false belief that they do not know anything about the topic. This can then be reinforced because they cannot remember anything to write, creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This technique should therefore only be used once students are relatively secure in their knowledge.

6. Elaborative interrogation

Here, students begin with their core knowledge about a topic and then interrogate it with “how” and “why” questions to build upon it. This trains students to generate questions that lead to a deeper understanding of the topics they are revising and to connect knowledge from different parts of the curriculum. 

How to teach elaborative interrogation

Model the process to students by generating a chunk of knowledge, for example: “People moved from the countryside to cities during the Industrial Revolution”. Then create questions to build on it. Students should use “how” questions like: “How did moving to cities change daily life for people?”, and “why” questions such as: “Why did people move from the countryside to cities?”.

Students could recall the answers to these questions, or use revision resources to find them. Make sure students know that this process can be continued almost indefinitely. For example, once you’ve established that people moved to cities to work in factories, you could ask: “Why were factories being built?” and once you know it was due to the development of mass-production technologies, you could ask: “How did this affect small producers?”. 

Where do teachers go wrong?

Teachers do not establish at each stage that students have a solid foundation in the core knowledge they need, so their elaboration is taking place using incorrect and incomplete knowledge. Students could be trained to check this themselves using a checklist strategy. 

Michael Feely is principal of Dixons City Academy in Bradford. Ben Karlin is associate dean at the Ambition Institute. This is an edited extract from their book, The Teaching and Learning Playbook, which is available at a 20 per cent discount with code TES (expires March 31 2023)

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