If you don’t revise, you shall not pass

Higher Education

Neil Pickles
by Neil Pickles
If you don’t revise, you shall not pass

JRR Tolkien conceived the first words for The Hobbit when staring at a blank page of an exam he was marking. Continuing with that theme, there is a famous scene from the first film of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship Of The Ring) in which Gandalf the wizard is facing a formidable enemy on a narrow bridge. He shouts to the terrifying Balrog that ‘you shall not pass’ and this has been adapted into an internet meme that hints that if you don’t revise, you shall not pass. This is something that I show to my students as with exams looming, engaging students in the revision process is always an important concern.

Revision season is in full swing in universities across the UK. How students approach it is likely to be a key factor in their success. An approach that I find helpful is to provide revision help from the very first lecture on a module, rather than in an intensive block at the end. Providing revision opportunities throughout engages the students from the start and frequency is one factor that can improve exam performance.

Deciding on how to incorporate revision into taught sessions and make it interesting can be a challenge. However, one method that can be used involves interactive quizzes at the end of lectures, in which students can answer questions and gauge their performance. I have been employing Vevox for over a year now and it has been an ideal platform to allow me to do this. In my department, we use multiple choice questions (MCQs) for first and some second-year exams. In one module, I have been preparing students for their exam on Biology of Disease. At the end of the first lecture, I showed some example MCQs, a selection of which can be seen below.

A colleague of mine (Dr Steve Lewis) passed on a useful tip on using MCQs in revision sessions. In the examples above, the possible options are listed as would be expected in an exam. However, I initially provided just the question and ask them to try and answer without seeing the options. Then after a suitable time period give them the options and they can answer again. I have found this to be very effective, particularly to warn against random guessing of answers.

To engage the students, I use the Vevox app to post these questions and also use the PowerPoint plug-in. The response from students has been very positive – they enjoy using their phones and tablets to answer the questions. Engagement levels are usually very high and setting the responses to be anonymous provides a comfortable space for students to be wrong without being singled out. It also creates a less formal environment and, if I may be so bold, perhaps even makes it fun. When I push the result and correct answer back to the students, it is important that I explain to them why the incorrect answers were wrong and why the correct answer was right. After all, sometimes a student will get an answer correct without knowing why! From my perspective, it is very useful for me to use this approach as the questions are quick and easy to set in Vevox and I can download the responses (see below). This allows me to gauge how the cohort of students are coping with the questions.

This output can also be shared with the students, further reinforcing their revision programme. I have found that when you take an active role in their revision, they do the same. Learning is at its best when both educator and learner are both actively engaged at the same time. Of course, we should encourage students to do revision in their own time, but embedding it into taught sessions will get the ball rolling sooner. There are many other ways we can help students. My top five tips for helping students with revision are:

  1. Start the revision on day one of a course
  2. Frequency is key – a small amount of revision material each week is best
  3. Make revision interactive – use Vevox!
  4. Explain keywords in an essay question – e.g. directional verbs
  5. Give them a realistic expectation of how long they should spend on a question –  build this into your revision sessions

I only have one niggling doubt about exams and revision. How would I fare in one of my exams? That is certainly food for thought…

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