Previously, I presented a possible approach to assist students in their revision of revising for the poetry exam. The post, here, suggested students learn 5 of the poems in great detail and creatively design arguments that would allow the poem to be used regardless of the theme in the essay question. As suggested by the title, the approach is particularly designed for students who may not have the time or capacity to be able to revise all of the poems in the anthology. Despite my best of intentions, sadly this is the case for a certain number of my students.

In this post I will present another revision strategy, designed with the understanding of cognitive load (see Adam Boxer’s excellent explanation of cognitive load here), and utilising the notion of incremental design. I believe, similar to the way we present information to students, cognitive load should be considered when we present revision strategies to students. Struggling students often become overwhelmed with revision, throwing their hands in the air ( = ignoring it) because they don’t know where to start; there’s literally hundreds of things to revise. What might benefit them would be a broken down approach, instructing students to incrementally build their revision, which should begin by providing a baseline.

Presently, as an example, I would expect students to revise straight from their poetry anthologies. However, I have realised this may not be the most effective strategy for novice learners. There is a lot of information on this page, and for the novice learner, a learner who doesn’t have a good secure level of understanding, an overwhelming amount of knowledge in terms of using it as a revision tool.

So, as a baseline revision tool, I have given my students blank copies of the anthology, and gone through each poem with them in class, annotating just 5 or 6 aspects of each poem. Visually, it looks lots easier to cope with, the premise being that in a 25 minute writing adventure, lower level students would realistically only be able to write about 5 or 6 aspects of the poem, having described WHAT the poem is about and its MESSAGE (often included context) in the intro.

From this base, I would employ students in several revision activities in their class books or alternative place, but in the following sequence:

  • Write down what the poem is about
  • Write down the message of the poem
  • Write down what each of the 5 or 6 annotated sections has to do with the poem.

Students would use retrieval strategies to complete the activities above, but would refer to their actual anthologies if knowledge is lacking. They may reduce the number of flashcards to ensure they have the baseline understanding secure for each poem first, and then begin writing responses to possible essay questions. Just for a moment consider the enormity of this task, with 15 – 18 poems to be discussed. For struggling students, reducing the cognitive load to a minimalistic baseline is imperative.

It is my hope that students will use the minimalistic revision anthology to ensure they have at least a sound level of understanding of each poem, considering that they could be asked to write about any of them in section A of the poetry exam. The minimal visual highlighting too, assists the memory, so when the poem is actually presented to them in the exam, I hope this strategy helps them to recognise in their memories where the highlighted sections were, quickly highlight on the exam, and begin to write with confidence about the poem.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for other English teaching resources.