Revision Guides: Why I don’t like them and what you should do instead
If you’ve asked me for recommendations about which revision guides to buy, you’ll probably have been surprised by my answer. You see, I don’t recommend revision guides for two reasons:
- It’s ten years since I was teaching in the classroom so any knowledge I would have based on actually use of revision guides is a decade out of date. On top of that, I never used revision guides with my students. This was partly because I was a geography teacher and geography isn’t a subject well suited to the use of generalised resources like revision guides. It’s also because…
- … I’ve never liked revision guides. I’m going to explain why in this blog post.
Why I don’t like revision guides
1. They’re too reductionist
I really don’t like the way revision guides strip out all the detail, nuance and explanation of the way they explain things to students. They basically reduce knowledge down to its bare bones, and for me, this isn’t good enough.
Now, I fully recognise that this is why some people might like revision guides – because someone else has done the hard thinking work for them and boiled everything down to the bare minimum which makes it seem easier to learn. But, bear with me while I explain.
Letting someone else do the thinking for you leads to poorer memory and understanding on your part
One of the key processes in revision is:
- Taking in information
- Manipulating that information in your own mind
- Recording it and communicating it in your own way
This is the process that makes neural connections in your brain, laying down physical structures which store the information for you. These structures are then reinforced by repetition.
The trouble with revision guides is that you’re letting someone else go through this whole process for you – taking a difficult concept and boiling it down to something simpler. By using a revision guide you’re depriving yourself of a deep learning opportunity. Basically, you’re not getting as well acquainted with the idea or information as you could, which means you’re ultimately depriving yourself of marks.
Nuance and complexity matter – particularly for higher grades
If you’re aiming for a grade anywhere above a straight pass (a 4 or 5 at GCSE) then you’re going to need a bit more nuance to your knowledge than a revision guide, on its own, can give you.
You could go to revision guides to get the basic structure of the knowledge and then layer complexity on top of that by looking at your textbook or class notes. But, a decent textbook or teacher will have provided you with this base knowledge anyway.
Basically, you need more than the revision guide is giving you if you’re going to get higher grades.
Revision guides treat all knowledge as equal
What I mean by this is that revision guides don’t really point out the bits of knowledge that large proportions of students find tricky to understand. They don’t highlight the bits that people always get wrong and present ways of remembering that tricky information.
In geography, a concept like the greenhouse effect is something that many students struggle to get their heads around (I wrote more about that in this blog post). But, revision guides will typically just have a simple diagram of the mechanism without any notes on the things that trip students up.
They’re treating all knowledge as equal in it’s difficulty to understand – when it isn’t.
2. They don’t teach exam technique
One of the biggest mistakes I see students making with revision is that they concentrate on learning all the information first, before moving onto practising their exam technique. The problem with this is that even if you know and understand everything on the specification for your exam if you don’t know how to communicate it in a way that examiners can give you marks, you won’t get a grade that truly reflects your knowledge.
Basically, if you’re only revising information for your exam, you’re going to be disappointed by your result. You have to incorporate exam skills practice all the way through your revision.
There are some resources out there that have practice questions, such as CGP revision guides, but I would only invest in these once you’ve exhausted the supply of past papers that are available for free on exam board websites.
3. They don’t show you how to revise
Many students I come across have all the resources, textbooks, revision guides and stationery they could possibly need, but they’re still stuck with their revision because they don’t know how to revise.
The problem with revision guides (as well as textbooks and your class notes) is that they simply present what you need to know without telling you how you can effectively transfer that information from the book into your head so that you can use it to get marks in your exam. And, while the knowledge is only in the book, and not in your head, it’s basically useless to you.
What you should do instead of using revision guides
Now I’ve told you why I don’t think you should be wasting your money on revision guides, I’ll tell you what you should be doing instead.
1. Making sure you know how to revise
Few schools teach their students how to study independently or revise. This means that many, many students feel overwhelmed by revision – simply because no-one has shown them how to do it, let alone make it work for the way their mind and body work.
I teach students how to revise in my book, The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Take, in The Extraordinaries Club and through academic coaching. It really isn’t that complicated when you know how, and it’s a hugely empowering thing to learn because it means you can ditch the overwhelm and actually take charge of your own destiny.
2. Pay attention in lessons and make good notes
If you’ve got a really good set of class notes and have been paying attention in class, you shouldn’t really need to buy revision guides (so long as the teacher has been upholding their side of the bargain). And, even if your class notes aren’t perfect, there are plenty of free online resources telling you what you need to know in a really effective way (see this blog post for a review of two of them).
3. Do revision power hours
Revision power hours are a hugely effective way to incorporate exam skills practice into your revision so that, when you get to the exam, you can communicate your knowledge to the examiner in a way that means they can give you the marks you deserve.
4. Find out how to revise each subject you’re studying
There are general principles to revision, which I teach in my book, the modules in the study skills programme inside The Extraordinaries Club and in academic coaching. However, each academic subject has its quirks and foibles about how you should actually revise it.
That’s why I’ve asked expert teachers and tutors to create a range of ‘How to Revise GCSE’ masterclasses for The Extraordinaries Club. They cover:
- Concepts that many students find tricky, and explanations of those concepts e.g. global warming and the greenhouse effect for geography
- How to actually approach revision for that subject. E.g. for history – should you start with learning detailed knowledge, or with exam technique?
- The things to look out for with exam technique with detailed walk-throughs of how to answer exam questions
- Skills that students often don’t have e.g. calculator skills for maths which can save you lots of time in the exam
- Structures you can use to answer exam questions e.g. for English language and literature
The full list of How to Revise GCSE masterclasses at the time of writing includes:
- How to Revise GCSE English Literature
- How to Revise GCSE English Language
- How to Revise GCSE Maths
- How to Revise GCSE Science (this includes five masterclasses on The Foundations of Science, Experimental Investigations and Techniques, Physics, Chemistry and Biology)
- How to Revise GCSE History
- How to Revise GCSE Geography – join The Extraordinaries Club to access this masterclass.
- How to Revise GCSE Spanish (just speaking at the moment, but we’re in the process of adding the rest)
- How to Revise GCSE French (just speaking at the moment, but we’re in the process of adding the rest – join the Extraordinaries Club to access this masterclass)
When you sign-up to The Extraordinaries Club you get access to ALL of the above as part of your subscription. From September 2020 we will start adding How to Revise Masterclasses for A Level subjects.
Over to you
Instead of wasting your money on a whole load of revision guides that aren’t going to:
- teach you how to revise,
- give you the level of information you need to get a decent grade; or,
- help you to improve your exam technique
I’d encourage you to learn how to revise properly. I can help you with this with the one-stop-shop inside The Extraordinaries Club where I teach general revision skills as well as having the How to Revise masterclasses. And, if you feel like you need a bit more help and guidance, you can sign-up for academic coaching. All 1:1 academic coaching clients get access to The Extraordinaries Club, but on top of that you’ll have your own coach to guide you through the process.