However much I might love them, I have to admit that, by this stage in the year, I cannot wait to be rid of my exam classes. The whiff of desperation off them, the finger-pointing (e.g. ‘Sir, you didn’t teach us that part!’), the endless question-spotting: all conspire to assault the soul. And I haven’t even mentioned revision yet.
‘Revision.’ Was there ever a word coined to gladden the heart less? As a student I was good at it (I made a plan and I stuck to it); as a teacher I am not. That is, not until this week. Now I’m a revision genius.
What I realised is that students underperform in exams not because they didn’t know stuff, but because they didn’t make best use of the stuff they did know. I teach Government and Politics at A Level. Within the global politics unit there is a question about the challenges to US hegemony in the world. All of my students would tackle this question if it came up, familiar as they are with concepts such as multipolarity and the rise of China. This is not especially difficult stuff and there are plenty of recent incidents they can draw upon to exemplify their points: the ineffectual response to Russia in Ukraine, the emergence of ISIS out of the ashes of the Iraq War, the relative decline in US economic performance. Students lap this lot up: they can hardly fail to do well. But then they do. The reason is that they launch into their answer with the merest hint of a plan, go on for a bit, meandering where their notions take them, then stop when the time runs out.
So this week I gave my class exactly this question. But, instead of rehearsing all the material that they were already comfortable with, we quickly agreed to assemble the response around 4 governing ideas: economy, diplomacy, security, culture. Choosing one each, I got them to write a topic sentence for these ideas. Some remembered a few tricks I have taught them along the way: nominalise the topic into a grand abstract noun; foreground this so that the examiner finds it near the start of the sentence; re-use the words of the question (‘challenge’, ‘hegemony’) rather than synonyms (‘compromise’, ‘undermine’, ‘superiority’.) We collected these topic sentences on the board and started to examine their effectiveness. We noticed that some were simple (‘Diplomacy is one way in which US hegemony has been challenged.’) while others were more complex (‘The cultural hegemony of the US has been challenged due to globalisation and advances in technology.’) We agreed that both were fine, but that a simple topic sentence was perhaps best where the rest of the paragraph was likely to be long and involved, and where a paragraph did not need to be so developed a more complex topic sentence could work well.
So far so good. There was nothing else written in my teacher planner for the class to do, and I don’t like letting a class go early. Then one of them blurted out, “So all I have to do to revise a question is to write out and learn the topic sentences!” There was unanimity on this, a conviction that they had stumbled upon a revision method they actually believed in. They know they know stuff. Now they know how to make the stuff they know work for them in the exam. Genius!