Four steps to better learning

While your lessons may be memorable, do your students actually know anything new as a result? Here, Mark Enser has some tips to ensure that the children you teach understand the subject and, importantly, can recall what they’ve learned
8th June 2018, 12:00am
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Mark Enser


Four steps to better learning

Pupils spend a lot of time in class completing work. Book after book gets filled, posters get created, portfolios put together. But how much of what they do actually gets learned?

The gap between learning and doing can be clearly seen in the first few lessons of a new Year 7 class. Like many teachers, I start by discussing the work they have done in their primary school. Most pupils remember that they have "done" rivers but more often than not, 50 per cent of the class think that rivers start at the sea and run inland. Most think that rivers always run from north to south. They can remember having done the lessons, watching a video, drawing some maps, but the key subject knowledge just isn't there.

This isn't only an issue for primary to secondary transition. I recently had to leave cover work for a class. The class worked in near silence all lesson and completed the work to a good standard using information in a textbook to work through a series of tasks. The work itself was almost identical to the work done by a different class the day before with me present. In the next lesson for both classes, only the group of students I had taught myself remembered what they had been taught. The work in their books was almost identical, so what makes the difference? What can teachers do in the classroom to make sure that pupils move from "doing" to "learning"?

1. Link to previous learning

The first step is to make sure that any new information is clearly linked to things that the pupils already know. It is very hard to learn something out of context. In his book Why Don't Students Like School?, Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says: "One principle is the usefulness of analogies. They help us understand something new by relating it to something we already know about." You are clearly indicating where in a pupil's schema this new information belongs and highlighting the other knowledge they will need to use to make sense of the new.

2. Dual coding

Pupils can take in new information in two streams. They can use their auditory channel to pick up information that is spoken or written, and their visual channel for images. By combining delivery through these two channels, they can find it easier to learn. In Carl Hendrick's and Robin Macpherson's book What Does This Look Like in The Classroom?, Yana Weinstein, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, explains: "In general, if students are exposed to information in both visual and auditory format, they stand a higher chance of remembering it later."

In geography, we do this all the time. We explain a physical process as we draw a diagram to demonstrate it or use an animation to show the process in action. The principle of dual coding also means that we should avoid overloading one channel. This can happen if we read instructions out loud while pupils are trying to read them. The same auditory channel is being used.

3. Questioning

In Principles of Instruction (, Barak Rosenshine highlights the importance of teachers asking questions to continually monitor a pupil's understanding. We need to ensure that the first thing is learned before moving on to the next, especially as learning the second thing will often be dependent upon the first.

Probing questions also force the pupils to think about the topic being studied. Willingham's much-quoted aphorism is that "memory is the residue of thought". The problem is, he explains, that humans actively avoid thinking whenever possible. He says: "People are naturally curious but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking."

This is a problem with much of the work done by pupils in class. It is possible to do the work without having to really think hard about it. Information can be copied from one place to another, motions can be gone through and shortcuts taken. Good questioning means that students are challenged to think hard about the topic and this makes it memorable.

4. Retrieval practice

Learning something new isn't a quick and simple process. Often, the problem isn't simply with making sure that the information is there somewhere in the long-term memory but that it is accessible and can be retrieved when needed. It is thought that forgetting and then struggling to remember is an important part of this process. In order to help pupils recall information between lessons, Weinstein suggests giving them a starter quiz.

"Once they get used to the routine of needing to remember information from one class at the beginning of the next, they will adapt by trying to keep the information fresh in between classes. In addition, the retrieval practice in and of itself will cause additional learning."

A quiz can also be used to help pupils retrieve information from previous topics and to remind them of previous knowledge that they will be using to make sense of the new lesson. The use of short, low-stakes quizzes, serve many functions in our attempt to make learning stick.

The question we should always be asking is: "What am I doing to make this learning memorable?" But we need to beware of making the lesson memorable instead of the actual learning. As my Year 7s demonstrated, they were very good at remembering that they had done the work but, unfortunately, work is a poor proxy for learning.

Luckily, there is a range of things we can do to move beyond a culture of work and towards one of learning, as long as we keep in mind Willingham's point that "memory is the residue of thought". Make them think, and you will make it stick.

Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex and blogs at

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