Effective Revision 09.12.16

I have been asked many times about the amount of revision boys in Years 11, 12 and 13 should do before their GCSE and A Level exams. There is no easy answer, because boys’ need and capacity for revision vary significantly. A young man who has worked consistently hard week by week throughout the Sixth Form is unlikely to need to spend as much time revising this Christmas holiday as someone who has struggled to keep on top of his motivation and workload. Similarly, some of our boys have the powers of concentration to do 8 hours’ revision a day, whereas two to three hours of good revision may be a more realistic target for others for whom academic study comes less easily. I urge you to be pragmatic about your son’s capacity for revision: trying to force him into unlikely feats of endurance will lead to conflict, inefficiency and a negativity towards learning that may persist.

Why do we revise?

Because we forget. Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885 posited the hypothesis of the Forgetting Curve which shows the decline of memory retention over time. He had noted from his own learning that information is lost over time when there is no attempt to retain it, and subsequent studies have confirmed the general trend below. (You may wish to show it to your son if he is not convinced by the value of revising.)


This shows that a week after learning something, we remember about 50% of it. However, each time we review (or revise) the information, our memory retention improves, so that after the fourth attempt at revision, we remember about 80%. The dotted lines show what would happen over time if we made no attempt to revise. The ideal student (do you know him?) revises material one week, one month, 3 months, 6 months and 1 year after learning it, so that he remembers virtually everything he has learned.

Planning revision: the two-thirds rule

Since we retain more information each time we revise it, those taking GCSEs and A Levels in Summer 2017 need to engage with serious revision during both the Christmas and Easter holidays. I have developed ‘the two-thirds rule’ to describe the amount of revision that a pupil with academic ambitions should do during the Easter holiday (the amount should be somewhat less at Christmas as there is a danger of a boy peaking too early with his revision).

The principle is relatively simple:

  • A pupil should work on two-thirds of the days of a holiday, in other words 14 days out of a three-week break. This acknowledges that hardly anyone can work effectively without periods of rest.
  • The working day should be split into 3 three-hour slots, for example:
    • 9.30 am – 12.30 pm
    • 2.00 – 5.00 pm
    • 7.00 – 10.00 pm
  • A pupil should work two-thirds of these slots, in other words for six hours a day. He may choose to work during the morning and the afternoon, so that he can go out in the evening. The following day, he may wish to have a lie-in so will work during the afternoon and evening.
  • Each 3-hour revision session should be split in two, so that he concentrates on a single topic for a maximum of 90 minutes.
  • Six hours a day for 14 days during a holiday equates to 84 hours of revision – a substantial amount for the Easter break.
  • Some boys can and will do more so this is not a maximum. However, burn out is a risk so we must be realistic about what is achievable from each individual.

The revision planner may be useful in helping your son plan his revision. It is not intended to be printed: in Excel format it will count up the hours he is devoting to each subject.

Some key revision principles

  • 3-hour sessions should be split in two with a 5 min break in the middle to stretch legs
  • Make sure that he has the right working environment:
    • The same room and desk each day
    • Good lighting and right temperature; quiet place in the house
    • All equipment should be to hand so that he doesn’t have to continue get up and find what he needs (pens, rough paper, ruler, calculator, highlighters etc.)
  • Look after yourself: sleep properly; keep hydrated; eat fruit and vegetables and sufficient carbs to provide energy
  • Plan which topics in each subject need revision. If he sits down to revise ‘Biology’, he hasn’t planned sufficiently. It must be specific, e.g. ‘the respiratory system’
  • Help him to plan his rewards. If he manages 6 hours on two consecutive days, has he got something to look forward to?
  • Create a plan and stick to it. Be realistic. Planning on doing eight hours a day and then only doing four creates negative feelings of failure. If he plans to do four and meets his goal then he will feel good about his revision.


  • Banish his mobile phone and computer from his work room.


How should he revise?

What works differs from person to person. Each boy must explore different revision methods before working out what works for him. Revision techniques include:

  • Making bullet point notes on cards using different colours
  • Highlighting / summarising existing notes
  • Recording oneself speaking notes and download them to iPod / MP3 player
  • Testing oneself orally, but also writing down facts and drawing diagrams from memory as part of the revision process
  • Practising questions from past papers
  • Teaching someone else
  • Creating a Mind-Map