Active learning and how it helps with revision
By Elizabeth Holtom
02 May

Elizabeth Holtom is the author of the Galore Park book Study Skills: Building the study skills needed for 13+ and beyond. As pupils follow this step-by-step, interactive guide they become confident and resourceful learners ready for the challenges at prep school and beyond. If you are working towards 13+ exams, then you may also be interested in our 13+ revision range and past ISEB papers.

What is the point of learning?  How would students answer this question? Here are some possible answers for two contrasting kinds of student:
Reluctant learners

  • They have to study so they pass their exams

  • They have to study because it is the law

  • They have to get their studies out of the way before they can have fun

Keen learners

  • They want to learn because there is so much to discover

  • They want to learn so they can fulfil their potential

  • They want to learn so they can help solve some of the problems in the world

Reluctant learners see studying as a chore.  Keen learners see studying as an opportunity. Whatever their starting point, we want to encourage everyone to study in as effective a way as possible by becoming actively engaged in their studies.  After all, the better they get at studying, the more time they will have for fun.  Here are some tips on how to be an active learner.
Brain warm-ups

Before students start reading their notes on a particular topic, they should ask themselves this important question, ‘What do I already know about my topic?’  Our brains process new information on the basis of comparison.  By asking this simple question and spending a few minutes on their response they put Velcro in their brain to which new information will stick.

  • Jot down bullet points

  • Create a simple spidergram

  • Tell a friend or parent what they already know

Active reading

When students read their notes, they should do this in as active a way as possible.  As Alan Baddeley (author of Essentials of Human Memory) says, the more deeply you process something, the better you learn it. 

  • They should decide on a question which makes them read with engagement.  For example

    • ‘What is the main idea in this section of my notes?’ 

    • ‘If I had to teach this to a grown- up/to a child what are the main points I would make? What evidence would I choose as supporting detail?’

  • Highlight sparingly.  Sometimes students think that by taking a yellow highlighter and highlighting nearly everything this makes their reading active.  It does not.  They need to skim read first: look at the labels for any diagrams and illustrations; read any words they have underlined such as sub titles; read the first sentence and the last paragraph.  In other words, get an overview of what they are studying.  Then they will be able to highlight with the aim of picking out the main points and supporting detail.  The next stage is to decide what to do with those highlighted words.

Revision techniques

There is a wealth of strategies students can use to convert their highlighted notes into a useful revision tool.  They need to reduce their notes – for example into bullet points, pictures, key words, mnemonics, rhymes or stories.  The activity of reducing is very important: it means that deep processing is occurring because they have to choose what to prioritise. 

  • Check out the range of strategies in chapter 4 of Study Skills: Building the skills for 13+ and beyond

  • Choose the strategy that appeals most and fits with the topic being studied.  The more multi-sensory their approach, the better. Check out the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic tips on pages 9 to 11 in Study Skills 13+.  Here are some suggestions. 

      What about:

  • A mind map for a Geography topic such as Flooding – rivers and coastal

  • A box and bubble flowchart for a History topic such as the Peasants’ Revolt

  • A set of question-and-answer index cards for a Chemistry topic such as atoms, elements and compounds

  • Flashcards for a modern language such as French, German or Spanish

Make sure they have all the equipment they need.  If they want to use flashcards they need to stock up from
Active reviewing

‘Little and often’ is the golden rule.  In my March blog I wrote about the value of regular reviewing and the importance of a good night’s sleep.  Check out my tips in that blog.   


  • Mind maps:

    • Review mind map: use one colour and reproduce it on A4 paper.  It should only take them a few minutes.  Then they should check their review mind map against their main one.  Points forgotten: add in a second colour.  Points they got wrong: correct in a third colour.  This is a visual and kinaesthetic way of reviewing.  Add an auditory element by describing their corrected review mind map out loud.

    • Describe their main mind map to a friend or parent.  Follow each branch with their finger as they explain it to their reviewing partner. This is a visual, auditory and kinaesthetic way of reviewing.


  • Box and bubble flowcharts:

    • Review by adopting the methods used for a mind map.


  • Question-and-answer index cards

    • Ask their reviewing partner to test them on their cards by asking the questions on the front of each card.  Their partner should retest them on cards where they failed to give an answer, gave an incorrect one, an incomplete one, or hesitated.  This is an auditory way of reviewing.

    • Set their cards out in a line, question side upwards.  Test themselves on each card.  A full and accurate answer: leave the card with the information side upwards.  Points forgotten, inaccurate recall or even just hesitation: leave the question side of the card upwards.  Carry on checking these until recall is secure.  When they put these cards away, leave the ones they had most difficulty with at the top and make sure these are reviewed again.  This is a visual and kinaesthetic way of reviewing.  Add an auditory element by saying their answers out loud.


  • Flashcards

    • Review by adopting the methods for question-and-answer index cards.

The night before the test or exam

If your children have got into good learning habits, then they should not be under any pressure to do last minute cramming.  They can complete a final review or two following the guidelines above.  They should make sure they have all the equipment they need ready and packed in their school bag so there is no last minute panic the next morning.  Finally, most importantly, they need to get a good night’s sleep in order to consolidate their learning during deep sleep and so they are fresh and ready for the challenges of the next day.


Looking for tips to help children learn and revise efficiently, cope with stress effectively and feel confident and fully prepared to do their very best in exams? Buy Elizabeth Holtom's comprehensive guide Study Skills: Building the skills for 13+ and beyond for just £13.99 here.

                                  study skills 13+

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Tags: Exam Preparation, Exam tips, learning, practice, revision, Revision Tips, Skills, Study, Study Skills, tips

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