Book Review: 3 things I’ve learned from “You Can’t Revise for A-Level English Literature” by Mark Roberts

This new guide to revision focusses on helping students maximise their potential and their time, as well as showing them how to stretch themselves and achieve success in A Level English Literature. Roberts’ practical strategies are presented in an accessible, concise format, making this volume useful for both students and teachers alike, and it would be an excellent companion text for Neil Bowen and Michael Meally’s outstanding The Art of Writing English Literature Essays (A Level).

So what have I learned from reading this guide?

  1. Knowledge retrieval is here to stay

Roberts starts his guide with a deeply controversial statement for all of us who love stationery: too many students are wasting revision time highlighting their notes, rather than actively seeking to embed knowledge in their long-term memory.

As a dedicated lover of a pastel highlighter (preferably blue), for me this is a painful – yet necessary – statement. Roberts’ research-informed approach leads him to advocate training our students to revise more efficiently and effectively, by regularly self-quizzing knowledge learnt 3 days ago, last month, and last year. His strategies for achieving this are simple to implement, yet flexible enough to suit students’ preferences in how to achieve this aim.

2. Killer quotations are key

But of course, once our students have acquired knowledge, they also need to learn how best to use it, and so Roberts’ thoughts on rehearsing analysis of killer quotations provides students with a method for moving beyond parroting to flexible and meaningful knowledge.

3. It’s all about synthesis

One of my prime peeves when marking students’ work is when they bolt on context, vocabulary, a pre-learned section of analysis, or a critical quotation, without integrating it fluently into their argument. So often I see students who miss opportunities to maximise the contextual details or critical comments they have striven to commit to memory, because in attempting to tick boxes on a mark scheme, they fail to interrogate or explore the significance of the ideas they are including. In this guide, Roberts highlights (in pastel colours?) the necessity of synthesising such details into a fluent argument, and making the most of them through genuine engagement with ideas.

And it is this ability which allows students to focus on the longer-term benefits of exam preparation. Whilst gaining qualifications is undoubtedly important, education is not about cramming information in order to pass exams. Roberts’ guide walks the fine line between focussing on succeeding in high-stakes assessments, and relishing the opportunities that such intense study gives for making a leap forward in knowledge and written style.

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