Ultimate Flash Cards

In terms of revision, we know what doesn’t work:


and doing nothing!

Conversely, we also know what is likely to be more successful:

spacing and interleaving
metacognitive strategies

The problem is some students find the language of these strategies off putting. The terms can seem opaque and clinical, no matter how many times you discuss and share the underlying reasoning.

Different terminology can help – words that capture the essence of effective study strategies but present them in more accessible and memorable language.  Often it is best to present things as clearly and simply as possible.

The Five Rs

The five Rs underpin our approach to independent study, including the guidance we give our students on writing effective flash cards.

  • reduce – identifying learning
  • recall – remembering learning
  • rethink – connecting learning
  • review – reflecting on learning
  • repeat – going back over learning

Flash card guidance

  1. Reduce

Create a learning overview by breaking down subjects into topics, units, modules and concepts. Whatever works best. Use the overview to group flash cards together within each subject. This makes revision more manageable and gives it a coherent structure.

  1. Recall

It can be useful to see recall as production and recovery. Production involves writing short prompts that invite retrieval of everything that can be remembered about a given topic, such as write a list or complete a graphic organiser e.g. Venn diagram or table.

Recovery involves recalling factual details using questions as cues. There are simple what/when/where/who questions, with how and why questions also used if appropriate. These questions strengthen memories and prime for rethinking. Three is about right.

  1. Rethink

This is important and involves designing activities that extend understanding by encouraging connections. Not exam tasks, but tasks inviting something to be done with what has been recalled, such as explanations, reasons, comparing and contrasting.

  1. Review

Planning makes study purposeful. Keeping track means weaknesses are prioritised and strengths returned to after forgetting has occurred. Colour coding (red for tomorrow; amber for a few days and green for a week) and adding dates is simple and strategic.

  1. Repeat

Steps 3-5 are repeated lots of time and at intervals. Dated cards and an overview of topics enable planning and reflection at review. Different subjects and different topics can be deliberately woven into a study session. Repetitions are determined by time available.


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The ‘ultimate’ reference is tongue in cheek – I don’t know if this approach is in any way optimal, but it is more likely to be successful than what is often produced and used.

Thanks for reading

Less is more: pitfalls to avoid when feeding back mocks

lessismore12-171010141840-thumbnail-4It’s that time of the year when GCSE and A Level students up and down the country are sitting mock assessments. Many of these will be dictated by the school calendar, and many students will sit more than one. Whilst there is not the space here to dissect the relative merits of mocks, one would hope schools are thinking carefully about their value and the impact on students and teachers.

However mocks are set, they have to be marked. Given this usually takes hours – particularly for those with multiple exam classes – and students spend hours answering them, teachers understandably want to make the effort count. Often, however, this desire to do the best for our students can lead us to make silly mistakes, to increase our workload and reduce the impact for our students.

The following are some of the pitfalls I try to avoid when feeding back to students. They are based on a combination of my own experiences in the classroom or things that I have seen in the schools where I have worked. I do not intend to rubbish anyone who does any of the following, as we all do things that if we slowed down and thought about we would probably wouldn’t do anymore.

  1. Don’t write detailed individual comments on students’ work

Ok, this may not appear to directly relate to feeding back, but it does affect it. If you go to the trouble of writing copious personalised comments, you inevitably want your students to read them. In my experience, the 2-3 minutes they spend reading your comments, is never worth the 4 or 5 hours you spent writing them. Do yourself a favour and collate misconceptions at class level and invest class time addressing those instead.

  1. Watch out for conveying undesirable messages

Always be mindful of the unintended consequences of the language you use, even when you are trying to motivate students. Comments like, ‘the examiner wants to see X’, or ‘you can pick up easy marks if you do Y’ are actually quite destructive. In the short term, you might come across as clued up on the specification, but in the long term you risk devaluing students’ hard work and contributing to the wider perception that schooling is only about passing exams.

  1. Avoid relying on self-assessment or peer assessment

This is not a criticism of self or peer assessment per se. I am referring to instances where it is used in place of teacher marking. If you need to use students to mark your papers then you probably have too much work and you should address that issue directly, rather than sweeping it under the carpet. Also, longer answers, exam mark schemes and rubrics are hard enough for experts to interpret, let alone children. Students who mark their own work will do it badly, won’t learn anything from the experience and you will get dodgy results.

  1. Going through every question on the paper

Laboriously trawling every question is tempting, but ultimately a waste of time. I totally understand that we want our students to understand exactly why they gained a mark here, or missed a mark there, but this kind of forensic approach pretty much contravenes every rule about attention, working memory and motivation. In other words, the learning process. You would never try and cram so much content into an ‘ordinary’ lesson, so why do so when feeding back?

  1. Wasting time on spontaneous explanations

Closely related to the above is when we try to tell students what they should have written instead. With the possible exception of simple questions where the answer is either one thing or another, this attempt to provide an explanation on the hoof is unlikely to ever work. If students didn’t get something when you explained it carefully the first time round, they are unlikely to achieve an epiphany in a cobbled together explanation you haven’t planned for. Better to plan for addressing common errors in a more systematic way.

  1. Avoid unnecessary and burdensome DIRT activities

Giving students little personalised activities to tackle when they get their papers back sounds a good idea. After all, we want students to be able to recognise where they went wrong and take steps to address their misunderstandings without always having to rely on us. The problem, however, is that to design these kinds of activities well enough so that they are meaningful takes time, which could be better served planning 2-3 high leverage tasks for the whole class or for groups of students. You also run the risk of creating more work for yourself and getting in to a never ending feedback loop you cannot close.

  1. Be careful interpreting at question level

The closer you get to the exam the more sense it makes to focus your time on the questions that students performed badly on, right? Well, yes and maybe no. Obviously, you will be guided by students’ performance on specific questions – identifying areas of weakness before it is too late is surely one of the points of a mock exam. The problem, however, is that sometimes question level analysis can lead you astray. It is not always the whole question that needs addressing, but rather a specific step in a process is missing or a concept has not been fully grasped. Students need to understand what specifically needs attention, not simply to do better next time on the 8 marker question!

So, what to do instead? I am trying to keep to the following three things:

  1. Keep a record of the class strengths and weaknesses
  2. Note down exemplar responses, for better or worse
  3. Use these notes and exemplars in the coming weeks – not all at once

Not terribly original, I know. But it is intended to keep me sane and maximise the impact of my efforts on my students’ learning. Hopefully, I will stick to these principles, though I know this is often easier said than done.

Five strategies for encouraging more effective independent study


At my school we have identified five core strategies to use in supporting our students with their independent study. Initially, the focus has been on embedding these approaches into year 11 and year 12, though in time we very much want all our students to understand the best ways to learn, both in the classroom and at home.

To this end, over the past few months we have undertaken a number of initiatives, all with the aim of getting students and teaching staff to be conversant in the importance of quizzing, spacing, elaboration, chunking and metacognition. We want to establish a shared language around effective learning strategies and believe that by having a thorough grasp of a few core concepts, our teachers are more likely to apply these principles to their teaching and our students are more likely to use them to improve their studying.

Now, we are certainly not the first school to think and act in this way. In honing our five principles of effective study, we have looked at much of the good work being done elsewhere, including this by Shaun Allison at his school. I hope that this blog, and the accompanying PDF resource at the end, will continue this good work and help other schools to get better at helping their students to succeed.

A different approach

In the past, we have talked quite a bit about helping students prepare for exams. Like other schools, we have dutifully supplied students with a range of resources to help them revise at home. We’ve given them highlighters (big mistake!), notecards, motivational pens, post-it notes and all manner of things to help get them organised. This was all done with the best of intentions, but, aside from the odd tokenary assembly, we never really considered the how of revising effectively. We now recognise that it is far better to have a coherent, shared approach to the language of effective independent study – a common way of thinking and talking about the learning that takes place outside the classroom.


Most, if not all, the people reading this will be familiar with importance of regular quizzing, as well as its attendant benefit in relation to long-term learning. It can, however, be hard to share this level of understanding across a wider body of staff, not to mention with the students. The difficulties of spreading messages at scale can lead to a loss of nuance and hence misapplication, such as the false belief that simply setting past papers constitutes quizzing. It doesn’t. This helpful post from the Learning Scientists’ blog addresses some of the issues in designing effective quizzes, and provides guidance about what is more likely to work with students than not.

To try and avoid misunderstanding, we have been  explicit about the distinction between low stakes quizzing and high-stakes testing, and taken the trouble to teach our year 11 students how to learn, in a similar way to what we have done in staff CPD. We designed a weekly tutor programme, where each week we unpicked the research behind specific learning principles and followed up with practical tasks designed to deepen understanding. We have also drawn colleagues together at INSET to share an understanding of effective independent study and provide time to design resources and approaches around the agreed principles. In terms of quizzing, for instance, we used examples of 4-5 different ways to quiz, including cued and non-cued recall tasks, as well as the use of graphics. This was followed up with opportunities for students to take these quizzes in tutor time, or to design their own to use with friends.

Spacing and interleaving


As with quizzing, sometimes there can be considerable misconception about what spaced or interleaved study actually looks like. I remember presenting a session on interleaving and after I finished my talk, someone came up to me, thanked me for my presentation and then suggested that he was ‘going to try some of that into leaving tomorrow’. I didn’t know whether to laugh at his misinterpretation or cry at my poor communication. Either way, confusion abounds.

Like quizzing, a clear visual example can be helpful to illustrate an idea like spacing, particularly with students who find it difficult to construct a mental model of an abstract concept. The mocked up A level weekly study timetable below has been useful in showing students and teachers what it might mean to spread out small blocks of focused and iterative study on targeted concepts and modules. We know that modelling works to support teaching, yet we do not tend to do enough of it when it comes to supporting students to become more autonomous learners. We have learned to change.


For practical reasons, we collapsed elaboration and self-explanation into the same principle. Whilst there is a difference, they do essentially boil down to a similar thing: asking questions that encourage links to be made to other knowledge and understanding in interesting and unpredictable ways. Examples of four different types of elaboration – Clarification (What does this mean?); analysis (why does this matter?); speculation (What would happen if?) and contextualisation (How does this relate to?) – have helped teachers to model the types of questions students should be asking themselves, consolidating their understanding by forging links to existing, seemingly unrelated, knowledge.

A great and simple way of maximising the benefits of elaboration is through combining it with the more familiar way of quizzing using flash cards. Inspired by another great post from the Learning Scientists blog, we have been encouraging our students to generate an additional set of flash cards to go along with their chunked subject-specific ones (see below). This additional set contain a range of elaborative cues, so that not only can students quiz themselves and each other on the content of the original card, but also be encouraged to make connections they had not necessarily considered and which may or may not arise in the actual exam. This requires explaining, as many students have become so indoctrinated by the idea that if it’s not on the test, it’s not worth learning. This obviously misses the point on two fronts, but is sadly the result of a narrow approach to exam preparation.


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All teachers and students usually know something about the limitations of working memory, even it only intuitively. We have used CPD time to improve our collective understanding of issues around cognitive load, and whilst there will be some staff that won’t necessarily remember the specific terms to describe what is going on when students learn, they understand the basic premise that you cannot think of too many things at any one time – the familiar 7 +/- 2 identified by George Miller, and more recently revised downwards to around 4.

If you get the idea of limited working memory capacity, then you are more likely to take steps to reduce cognitive load. Chunking is one of the most obvious strategies to help reduce pressure on working memory. The problem is that whilst there are many examples of what chunking is, there is little guidance about how to apply it practically. It is all very well to demonstrate how letters are chunked to form words, or that acronyms such as FBI, BBC and WWF allow more information to be stored at any one time, but that does not really help a class teacher chunk their lesson content, or a student to form chunks to help them revise.


One, admittedly simplistic, way in which we have tried to promote the benefits of chunked learning is through the use of modelled flash cards. We have shared exemplar GCSE and A level versions to illustrate how it is possible to deconstruct a subject from topic level through to specific items or chunks of to-be learned information. It is all fairly obvious stuff, but from my experience it is often in the realms of the seemingly self-evident that the most unpredictable of mistaken assumptions are made. I remember when I was revising for my A levels, I created hundreds of cards for each subject. The problem was I just rewrote condensed versions of chapters from textbooks without properly understanding what I was copying out. I suspect some students still do this today.

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Metacognition is wide field with a great deal of nuance, so we focused on just one or two practical applications of ‘thinking about thinking’ to improve our students’ ability to organise their learning outside of school and to help them approach their exams in a confident, well regulated manner. Each department used INSET time to provide a step-by-step guide to examination components. These guides provide the starting point for students to personalise their approaches to exams, taking on board how they might be thinking and feeling at different points, how long they should be spending on different questions or sections and what strategies they can best employ to help them overcome moments of confusion, anxiety or forgetfulness.

More broadly, we have tried to build up an understanding of the main metacognitive strategies that will help students to study more independently, whether they are preparing for exams or not. Effective metacognition controls highly important aspects of our minds including motivation, self-regulation and will power, and through a simple five step process we have tried to help students to see how they can better reflect on the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of what they are doing, and to devise appropriate coping and organisational strategies to enhance their performance under pressure.


So, there you have it – our approach to better supporting the independent learning of our students. It is far from perfect, but it is a lot better than what we have done before and we can continue to make it better in the future.

Here is a copy of a two-sided summary of our five principles that we have used with our teachers and students this year. I hope it is helpful.

Thanks for reading!