Reflective Revision Diaries

A Reflective Revision Diary is a way to organise student revision: to make it more manageable and, with a bit of effort and dedication, easier, less boring and consequently more effective.

Diary Templates

Although ideas about revision – what it involves and how to do it – have generally moved-on over the past 25 years or so, one idea that has tended to persist is when to revise.

For most students (and probably teachers too) “revision” is something that’s (reluctantly) done between the end of a course and the start of their exams. For A-level students this optimistically means 9 – 12 weeks to revise 3 subjects that have been studied for 2 years. In Sociology, for example, this may come down to 3 weeks to revise 6 modules.

This, by any stretch, is a lot of work.

And too much work + too little time leads to the adoption of revision techniques – such as passively reading through folders of Notes – that take the path of least resistance. They give the impression of covering the required work while not being particularly effective as a way of actually remembering stuff. Which, when all’s-said-and-done, is probably the point.

One way to resolve this problem is that rather than condensing a large amount of work into a small amount of time is to spread revision out over the duration of the course. In other words, to encourage students to start their revision at the start of their course and carry it through until the end of the course. At this point they’ll already have done two year’s worth of revision for A-level and they can use the time until the start of the exam much more productively polishing-up on what they already (mostly) know rather than trying to relearn something they did 18 months ago and haven’t looked-at since.

In a nutshell, the idea here is that when it comes to revision “little and often” pays much higher dividends than “a lot all at once”.

To understand this involves grasping a couple of important ideas:

Firstly, the need to change how teachers and students perceive the status of revision: to see it as an integral part of day-to-day teaching and learning rather than something discrete tacked-on at the end of the course once official teaching is over.

Secondly, the need to operationalise this idea through a coherent and consistent approach to the place of revision in the curriculum. In other words, just as general teaching is organised in particular ways to help students grasp key ideas, revision needs to be integrated into the teaching programme as part of the daily routine.

Both of these ideas involve teachers and students working together to develop an organised approach to revision.

And this is where a Revision Diary could help.

Revision Diaries

Although the idea of keeping a Diary is central to this revision process, it’s something that’s supported by a structure of teacher and student behaviour: teachers need to make it as easy as possible for students to create and complete their Diaries while students need to commit to regular Diary updates.

The Diary itself is just a series of linked, A4, pages. They can be physical pages from something like an exercise book or you can use one of the available Page Templates for Wordprocessing your work.

The following exposition should make more sense if you’ve had a look at the different Templates because I’m going to assume the Diaries will be Wordprocessed. This has certain advantages, not the least being the ability to upload Diary pages to something like Google Classroom or Docs (other online storage space is available) if you want to check your students are keeping the Diary regularly and recording ideas and information clearly. The Template file I’ve created contains two basic types:

1. Unstructured (Blank)

Aside from the Header text common to all the Templates (Date: / Module (such as Research Methods) / Topic (such as Positivism) and Page No – this can be sequential or used to group related Notes, such as Positivism Page 1, Page 2 etc.) this is essentially an empty page on which the student can record whatever information they think is relevant in relation to the Topic.

While this is a key advantage, there’s a danger students will simply reproduce their class Notes rather than try to capture the essence of those Notes in their Diary – which, after all, is the object of the exercise.

2. Structured (Pre-formatted)

A second type of Template, with a couple of minor colour variations, takes a more structured approach to guiding students about Diary content by sub-dividing each page into 4 sections:

1. Define/ Describe: Create a brief overview of the Topic concept, theory or method.

2. Explain: Used to show how and why the Topic concept, theory or method is important, useful or significant.

3. Apply: This section ideally notes various types of content, such as research studies, and examples, that can be applied to evaluate the Topic. Some Templates are divided ( + / – ) to reflect this if you want your students to divide application into positives and negatives.

4. Link: Used to suggest links between the current Topic and other Topics.

The idea here is that for each Topic the student makes a few short Notes that, taken together, give them a solid overview and understanding of the Topic in note-form. Using this Template the student is encouraged to complete each section as concisely and evocatively as they can, using for example single key words or short phrases.

The categories I’ve suggested have a second revision purpose in that they can be almost directly transferred to long-mark exam questions using something like the PEEEL mnemonic:

  • Point [describe / define]
  • Explain [explain]
  • Examples [apply]
  • Evaluate [apply]
  • Link [link]
  • This has the added bonus, therefore, of subconsciously transferring the structure used in their Diary to high-mark exam questions.

    The slight variations here involve the use of colour, something that can be a handy visual memory aid: through constant exposure and repetition students develop a link between colour and content (Yellow means define…) and although this isn’t likely to be hugely significant in an exam, every little helps…

    If the basic structure of the Revision Diary is relatively straightforward and simple to both grasp and employ, the behaviour supporting requires a little more explanation.

    The Basics…

    1. The contents of a Diary page reflect the lesson on which it’s based and it would be helpful to identify, at the end of the lesson for example, the key ideas / topics covered. For example, if a lesson on Research Methodology covered Positivism and Interpretivism, these are the Topics students should be encouraged to focus on in their Diaries.

    2. Encourage students to develop a routine for Diary completion. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for this but you want your students to complete a Diary page while the information you’ve taught is reasonably fresh in their mind.

    The 1-week principle is something you might want to consider: if the lesson was on a Monday they write-up their Diary the following Monday. This encourages students to try to recall the information in the lesson from memory if they can – they can use their class notes if they can’t – and gets them into the routine of thinking-ahead from the lesson to their Diary.

    3. It’s important your students see Diary-writing as an essential part of the course and you can encourage this by building it into their homework routine, whereby you set-aside a regular amount of time for Diary-completion. While this may mean cutting-down on other homework routines, such as question-answering or essay-writing, you can compensate for this by basing homework questions / activities around their Diary work.

    If you want to sell students on the idea of keeping a Diary by building it into their general homework schedule you can keep things manageable by cutting-back on other forms of homework and building low-stakes / ungraded testing into your teaching using quick quizzes. You might, for example, get into a routine of including a very short quiz at the end of your last / first class of the week, based on the previous week’s lessons. If you allow students to reference their Diary during the quiz this encourages them to make sure it’s always up-to-date.

    4. Initially Diary-completion will be more time-consuming for your students than it will once they get into the swing of things. Once they’ve got into the routine they will find Diary-completion much quicker, because they understand what needs to be included and how to break it down quickly and efficiently into memorable key words and phrases. You can encourage this for the first few weeks by explicitly sign-posting key ideas in your lessons and pointing to how they could be written-up in Diary form.

    5. After your first substantive lesson, introduce your students to the basic idea of a Reflective Revision Diary and explain how it works using the Template I’ve created or one tailored to your own particular needs / teaching. It might, for example, be helpful to do a class walk-through, based on the previous lesson, where you take your students through the information that could go into each section. This has the added bonus of giving you some idea about what they’ve remembered (or not…) from the previous lesson…

    6. Ask your students to focus on keywords / ideas when completing the Diary rather than long, verbose, sentences (they’ll probably have enough of those in their class notes). The idea here is that the Diary will eventually serve as a series of keyword prompts for their final end-of-course revision sessions.

    For example, for a lesson on Positivism they might use keywords like “objectivity”, “cause and effect”, “subjectivity” and the like, as well as reference to other methodologies (Interpretivism, Realism, Feminism…) that can go in the “Links” section to remind them of the connections between different methodologies.

    7. A basic idea to instil in your students is that the Diary will become an Index to their main class Notes. It’s a document they can use when revising at the end of the course to give them a solid overview of each module and the content they will need for the exam. As they review and reflect on their Diary’s contents, if there’s anything in it they’ve forgotten or are confused about they can then go to their general class notes for help.

    8. If students Wordprocess their Diary you can get them to periodically upload it to whatever web space you use to store such documents. The main advantage of this is being able to keep track of the Diary each student is constructing – are they completing it regularly? – as well as being able to sample and review the pages they’re creating if you have the time. This can be useful, particularly in the early days, as a way of checking they’ve understood the Diary format, have included appropriate content and the like. An added bonus of online storage is that a copy of their Diary is always available should they lose the original…

    9. Ideally your students should always be a little bit behind your teaching with their Diaries – anything from a day to a week for example. When deciding how long to make the space between teaching and Diary-writing, keep in mind that:

  • Too close to your teaching of a Topic and students may just reproduce in their Diaries the notes they’ve taken in a lesson.
  • Too distant from your teaching and there’s a danger they will have forgotten what was taught and, again, resort to their notes verbatim.
  • The ideal, which will come with a bit of trial-and-error and tweaking, is to get them to complete each Diary page when they’re just far enough away from what’s been taught to be able to make a good fist at remembering without having to resort to any Notes they’ve made in class. They can, of course, supplement their Diary entries by reference to their class notes if necessary, but the objective should be to produce a solid precis of their class notes from memory.

    While this may seem like – and probably is – a lot of additional work for your students you can mitigate this somewhat by building Diary writing into the general course. In the long run, however, the benefits of keeping a course Diary should pay dividends at the end of the course because your students will have available a relatively concise set of class Notes they can use to prepare for their exams.

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