Boosting Concentration: revision tips

“Most students do not find it difficult to plan their work for the day, the week, or even the semester ahead. Where it all gets a bit more difficult is when they actually have to sit down with their books and actually study.”

Dr. Phil Race: Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, Part One (University of Manchester), p.18

The main issue is that the ‘gap’ between KS4 and KS5 is, arguably, too wide in terms of the amount of work we seem to expect students to carry out independently, both in and out of the classroom. It could be argued that the more ‘interventions’ we put in place at KS4, the less we expect students to carryout independently. However, schools cannot afford to take the inevitable impact upon their results that reducing the interventions in place would have (it takes time to effect that type of change in school culture and OFSTED are always on the horizon).

However, we are not effectively preparing our sixth form students for higher education if we do not help them to study effectively, and this includes their concentration both in and out of lessons.

A 2013 joint study by Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute found that, despite a nine- fold hike in tuition fees, the average university student has fourteen hours contact time per week and an average workload of thirty hours per week; therefore approximately sixteen hours are spent in ‘independent study’. They need to be equipped to carry out this independent study.

Ten top tips for better concentration

  1. Eat breakfast. Statistics show that around 60% of teenage boys and 70% of teenage girls regularly skip breakfast; complex carbohydrates release energy over the course of the morning and could have a beneficial effect upon study habits. A mixture of complex carbohydrates, fruit and protein is ideal.
  2. Don’t listen to music … or if you must, make it music without lyrics. Your brain will process information more slowly if it is trying to process song lyrics at the same time. Also remember that a lot of what you are revising is going into your subconscious mind – however, this is no good if the lyrics to “Saturday Night” by Whigfield are also in there.
  3. Space out study sessions – research carried out by the Sutton Trust suggests that cramming too much into one session (especially right before a test or exam) is not beneficial and increases stress levels with little or no gain.
  4. Put your phone away – easier said than done, but even if you are not using it, its very presence means that you are keeping a small part of your brain alert for the text message or the ring tone – this is brain space that could be saved for important learning.
  5. Drink water – but don’t wait until you are thirsty; your concentration levels have already lapsed by then.
  6. Fresh air/ exercise – natural remedies for stress. You don’t have to run the London Marathon – 20 minutes spent wandering in the park will improve your mood, lower your stress levels and enable your brain to transfer what you have learned from short-to-long term memory (or from conscious to subconscious).
  7. Keep a diary – study can lead to anxious thoughts including fear of failure or a sense that this is your ‘one chance’. Writing down your thoughts and recognising them for what they are is a meta- cognitive process which reduces their ability to alarm you and help you put things into perspective.
  8. Regular bed time and 8-10 hours sleep a night – Research into teenagers and sleep patterns suggests that teenagers who have erratic bed times and not enough sleep are more likely to fall ill. Sixth formers need more sleep than adults, not enough sleep has been linked to poor decision making, poorer short term memory and shorter attention span.

I conducted some qualitative research amongst our returning Year 12 students to try to establish what the ‘barriers’ are to effective study, but also to find out the good practice that already exists amongst our sixth formers. The following questions were asked:

  1. When you know that you have a test to prepare for (short term) – how do you go about revising for this test?
  2. When you are planning longer – term revision (for the final exam of a particular unit) – how would you go about studying for this?
  3. When you are studying, which of the following do you prefer (please indicate as many as are applicable):
  • Alone
  • With friends
  • In the LRC/ Pavilion Learning Area
  • At home in a family area
  • At home, in a private area
  • In silence
  • With earphones in
  • With background noise, i.e. television or music on (not headphones)
  1. Which of the following is most likely to distract you from your study? Please indicate one:

 

  • Someone talking near you (not to you)
  • Hunger
  • Mobile phone
  • Social networking sites

The last two questions are optional:

  1. Do you have a designated area at home for study? (Yes/ No)
  2. If the answer is ‘yes’ – where is this area and how is it set up?

 

Year 12 questionnaire results

  1. When you know you have a test to prepare for (short term) – how do you go about revising for this test?
  • “Learn all the information in the topic”
  • Past papers
  • Reading through class notes
  • Revision guides
  • Cue cards
  • Test myself
  • Text books
  • Cram the night before
  • Start as soon as possible
  • Podcasts
  • Mind maps
  • Get other people to test me
  • Youtube videos
  • Teaching it to others
  • Quizlet

 

  1. When you are planning longer – term revision (for the final exam of a particular unit) – how would you plan for this? (anything different from the above)
  • Use the mark scheme to assess my own learning
  • Group revision sessions
  • Make my own test questions and mark schemes
  • Plan around my coursework deadlines
  • Long term plan – space out revision accordingly
  • Timed exam responses
  • “I buy revision guides and then tell myself I have lots of time”
  • Keep on top of classwork from the start!
  • Build up the amount of time I can concentrate up to fifty minute blocks
  • Make a timetable

 

  1. When you are studying, which of the following do you prefer:
  • Alone 55/60 (92%)
  • With friends 10/60 (17%)
  • In the LRC/ Learning Area 13/60 (22%)
  • At home, in a family area 10/60 (17%)
  • At home, in a private area 47/60 (78%)
  • In silence 26/60  (43%)
  • With earphones in 25/60 (42%)
  • With background noise, television or music on (not headphones) 11/60 (18%)

 

  1. Which of the following is most likely to distract you from your study? Please indicate one:
  • Someone talking near you (not to you) 9/31 (29%)
  • Hunger 8/31 (25%)
  • Mobile phone 8/31 (25%)
  • Social Networking sites 6/31 (19%)

 

This is out of 31 as 29 students ticked more than one response so could not be counted in the data. What is interesting that we would assume that social networking sites are the biggest cause of distraction when there are actually other environmental factors that prove more distracting.

The last two questions identified that 31 out of 60 students also specified that they had a space in their house to work; most of them had a desk in a bedroom but five students specified that they worked in a communal area, i.e the kitchen table.

Making it stick – Victoria Littler

In summary:

The book posits that there are no easy routes or short-cuts to transferring information from short-term memory to long-term memory. Such transfer is, however, essential in order to advance in the school environment and beyond; the book offers the following insights, all of which are based on empirical evidence:

  • Learning is deeper and more permanent when it is effortful or challenging
  • There is evidence that intelligence is not fixed: the more you learn, the more neural paths and links in the brain are forged. This process of learning and repeated retrieval strengthens memory and makes it easier to retrieve information in the future
  • We are poor judges of our own learning and, sometimes, of the learning of our pupils; it is essential to practice what they know (or think they do!)
  • Re-reading and massed practice (cramming) is wasteful; gains made will only be temporary and the information learnt will not be transferred to long-term memory.

The book offers some useful tips about how, as well as ensuring that our teaching challenges pupils and that the language we use encourages a growth mindset, we can make students better judges of what they know and become better at retaining knowledge. Moreover, it provides some useful alternatives to students’ often preferred learning methods of massed practice and re-reading.

Practical tips:

  • Using simple quizzing in various forms (multiple choice, Plickers, Kahoot). You could also try: pre-testing to make students more aware of gaps in their knowledge before a topic; using the following questioning technique to get students to think carefully about what they have retained:

Self test 1

Students would then be quizzed on the questions and required to feedback a plus or minus figure depending on whether they underestimated or overestimated their abilities. You should also return to quizzes done earlier in the year. ‘Spacing’ (letting time pass – a minimum of a day) is a useful learning tool because trying to recall what you previously mastered is effortful and therefore more likely to be remembered long-term.

  • Trying to solve a problem before giving students an answer (again, more effortful)
  • Putting material in an illogical sequence; students must then engage with the material and seek to make sense of it themselves
  • Putting reading material out of focus so that students must use prior knowledge to decode information, rather than just re-reading it
  • Leaving gaps in previously taught definitions or blanking out portions of the knowledge organisers to make students really think about how well they know terms and concepts
  • Using delayed feedback; this acts as a form of ‘spacing’ which requires more effort to think about (in terms of remembering what the assessor was looking for and why that was and is important)
  • Interleaving: a practice adopted in English which means that more than one topic or skill set is used in conjunction with another. This makes learning slower and more arduous, making it stick!
  • Using flashcards. Have students copy out key terms on flashcards. In pairs they can test one another and could have three piles: ‘know well’, ‘know’ and ‘need to learn’. These cards should be returned to with varying frequency. The ‘need to learn’ are the obvious priority, however, ‘know well’ and ‘know’ should be interleaved with this revision to ensure commitment to long-term memory.