August 18, 2020

Working Harder To Work Smarter in English


I want to start by making clear that I am not an advocate of work for work’s sake. I am a strong believer in working smarter rather than harder where possible, and so my purpose is to provide you with three examples of where working harder in the earlier stages of your study/revision means you are working smarter in the long term.

I have noticed a couple of issues arising for a significant number of my students. One example is students being unable to commit quotations to memory accurately in order to draw upon them in assessments and exams. For English GCSEs (and for assessments and examinations at KS3 in most secondary schools), it is important that students memorise key quotations from the texts that they study. Of course, different students are able to do this with varying degrees of success and accuracy. However, it’s my belief that what students really need in order to be successful and accurate in recalling quotations (and similar bits of information) is not just to review them regularly, but to review them in context. When revising at home, how easy is it to Google a half-remembered quotation to check how close you were? As a teacher, I find myself doing it all the time. I would argue, though, that whilst doing this regularly will certainly go some way to helping you commit it to your long-term memory, it will not be as effective as consciously choosing to take the more labour-intensive route of picking up a copy of the book and scouring through it to find the specific bit of information.

One reason is that it is actually the process of actively trying to recall information that helps us to embed it into our long-term memories.  We need to try harder to recall the information in order to locate it in a copy of the text than we do for Google to recognise our more rough approximations of it. Consider the following quotation, spoken by Banquo in ‘Macbeth’:

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths; Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s In deepest consequence.

Simply typing in ‘Banquo instruments’ is enough to locate the quotation online. But how much have you really had to try to recall that quotation? Granted, a conscientious student will then write then quotation down on a revision card then revisit it regularly, meaning they do end up engaging in the process of actively trying to recall it. However, this represents a missed opportunity to begin the process a stage earlier.

Another reason is that looking it up in the text itself gives a far better understanding of its context within the plot – what happens directly before and after it, how other characters respond and whereabouts it appears in the overall arc of the narrative. This means that you are also learning much more about the quotation, simply through changing the way you look it up. A demonstrable knowledge of the overall plot, and how individual events fit into it, is essential to secure the higher grades. So whilst this is more labour intensive in the earlier phases of revision, it saves time in the longer-term – you not only learn the quotation better and more accurately this way, but you learn more information about it, saving you having to consciously cram this additional information at a later stage.

Another common issue is solved with a similarly long-term approach. Too often, students make errors in their spelling, punctuation and grammar simply because they are not sanctioned strongly for doing so. Until exam time, when they are (heavily, in some cases). David Didau discusses this extensively on his blog; I will summarise what he considers and explain how it fits into what I am advocating about being purposeful about study habits.

Didau states that he has ‘almost never met a secondary age child who doesn’t conceptually understand how to use a capital letter. But, you’d never know.’ Because students too often go unpunished for making errors with capital letters, it’s easier not to think about having to use them, and too often they don’t. There’s no question that this in large part comes down to the teacher and how insistent they are about getting these things right. If a teacher makes a student keep proofreading and redrafting work before they can move on (as Didau advocates), they will soon stop making such errors. Unfortunately, too many teachers do not do this, partially because of the pressure they are under to get through course content.

However, as a student, being purposeful about accuracy in your writing from an early stage will reap immense rewards, regardless of whether your teacher gets you to proofread and redraft extensively or not. The reason is this: the students who take the easy road in the early stages of their education make it harder for themselves when exam time comes around. Students know, for example, that in their creative writing, they want to not only include sophisticated ideas, but also a powerful range of language techniques and structural features.

A student who is hoping to do well, but who has embedded technical inaccuracies in their writing through poor habits not only has to think about the sophisticated ideas they want in their writing, and to think about the language techniques they will use, and to think about the structural features that will enhance their work, but they also have to consciously think about using capital letters accurately, even though they actually do know how to. Sometimes, this is all too much to think about, and one or more of these areas suffers. This is what’s known as cognitive overload. There is too much strain on the working memory, and it can’t cope with all the things it’s trying to hold in place at one time.

The student who has embedded good habits by being purposeful in their proofreading from an early stage has one less thing to think about, because that work is done. Writing with accuracy is second nature to them (or in other words, it has become part of their long-term memory). They will scan over their written work at the end of the exam, but they won’t have to hold it painstakingly in the front of their minds every time they put pen to paper. So again, it’s clear that taking the more rigorous route earlier on actually saves work at a later stage.

My final suggestion is closely linked to this, and is a revision strategy not just for English, but for many subjects. It is to write, write, write! It is well-documented that re-reading notes and highlighting information is one of the least effective revision techniques. Writing, on the other hand, involves the steps I have mentioned above. You have to try, when writing an essay, or even just an essay plan, to dredge up that information which you need. This process in itself is better helping you to recall it again. Doing this multiple times then makes the process more automatic. Of course you need to pay attention to the nuances of a specific exam question, but when you’ve written about one quotation in relation to one theme 5 or more times when producing revision essays, it removes a significant amount of cognitive load on you in the high-pressure exam situation. This is ultimately what you’re revising for – to have as little taking up your working memory as possible on exam day. The lighter this cognitive load, the better able you are to focus. Writing detailed essay plans is far better than re-reading and highlighting, whilst writing full essays is better still. It really is short-term pain for long-term gain.