Classroom practice - Memory aids that are worth remembering

17th April 2015 at 01:00
Helping students to recall information is a vital task for teachers - but you may be surprised by the methods that work best

I spent my entire time as a student, and most of my early career as a teacher, not really understanding the essential role of memory in learning. If you had asked me to describe the relationship between the two, I would probably have come up with a simplistic image of rote learning and memorisation: a chorus of children mindlessly reciting some rule or another. I cringe to think of it.

My misconceptions were worse than simple ignorance - they were clouded with the myths that permeate education, such as the mistaken notion that remembering mere titbits of knowledge is pointless in the electronic era of Google.

There are legions of others. Have you heard the story of the so-called "learning pyramid"? You know the one: you learn and remember only 10 per cent of what you read but a whopping 75 per cent of what you practise doing. Well, it's nonsense: memory has nothing to do with how you receive the information and everything to do with how much focus you bring to bear on it. I may remember very little about my cycle home, for example, but recall swathes of complex information about an article I read.

These are not trivial errors. I now realise just how essential it is for teachers to know how memory works and why it is inextricably linked to how we learn successfully. So how do we fix our memory lapses?

Brain train

To begin with, we need to build our knowledge of the workings of the human brain, memory and learning. Researchers Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch developed a model that is instructive for teachers. They describe short-term memory as "working memory".

In simplistic terms, it works like this. A "central executive" controls two systems: the phonological loop (your inner ear and inner voice, which stores written and auditory information) and the visuo-spatial sketch pad (your inner eye, which stores visual and spatial information). When information comes into the brain, the central executive stores it in one of these systems temporarily while it decides whether to transfer it to long-term memory or discard it. (Baddeley later added a third component - the episodic buffer - which communicates between the working memory and long-term memory.)

As teachers, we want to ensure that the information students learn gets transferred to the promised land of the long-term memory. So how do we do that?

Slipping one's mind

The answers can seem counter-intuitive. For example: forgetting is the key to successful learning. This knowledge is nothing new. The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was shaping his "forgetting curve" back in 1885. He noted that the duration between repetitions of information influenced how well we remembered it.

The counter-intuitive part is that the bigger the gaps - or the "spacing effect" - between information being retrieved from long-term memory, the stronger our capacity to remember and retrieve that information in future.

The harder the better

A second key theory is that we remember what we find difficult. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham writes in his book Why Don't Students Like School? that "memory is the residue of thought". Put simply, what we think hard about is what we remember. That means that information a student finds too easy to understand can fail to be sent to long-term memory because it is glossed over by the brain.

How does this play out in the classroom? We need to be careful about how we repeat what we teach. I have been guilty of encouraging shallow learning. For GCSE revision classes, I always insisted that students re-read Of Mice And Men. I now know this was time poorly spent. Rather than working hard at focusing their attention on the essential meanings of the text, re-reading would have felt familiar and easy and thus wouldn't have proved memorable - after all, they had read it already.

Similarly, we also need to address how we convey content. Most of us teach in topics or blocks. In chemistry, for example, you may teach a unit on atoms and elements en masse, then move on to chemical reactions and oxidation. We assume the content is learned: this "massed practice" - studying a topic all at once - feels fluent and natural. But the problem is it is too easy and too fluent.

Instead, we need to interleave content - mix it up. By incorporating gaps into the study of a topic, studying different elements of it at different times and revisiting it in the middle of learning something completely different, we force the brain to do a harder job remembering. This difficulty is what actually makes the knowledge stick (see Nate Kornell and Robert Bjork's 2013 article, "Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: the roles of discrimination and retrieval").

It is slower to learn this way, for sure, but it lasts longer. Students may not make what Ofsted calls "rapid progress", but they will remember what they're studying better by undertaking more difficult and slower, deeper learning.

With luck you can begin to see how integral an understanding of memory is for teachers. It is not an isolated part of education but something that should underpin all learning, informing what we do and why we do it. Here are three more strategies for ensuring that memory is a vital part of your teaching.

1 Asking why

Many of the most successful memory strategies are those that get students actively grappling with the material to be learned and, crucially, connecting it to their prior knowledge. One strategy that's robustly supported by research evidence is the simple act of getting pupils to ask "why".

Academics label this rather grandly as "elaborative interrogation", but in plain language it is about prompting our students to give an explanation for things. This helps them to create a web of knowledge that better aids their memory of it in future.

The simple act of asking "why" should become integral to our lesson planning. For example, we know that pi is 3.14159265359, but why is this number so significant? Lesson starters, questioning sequences, plenaries and more can all leverage the power of asking why.

2 Forgetting fortnight

This strategy is borrowed from my Huntington School colleague Nigel Currie. He found that his A-level PE students were able to learn difficult topics in the short term but their memory waned in the long term. One such topic foxed them year after year: arteriovenous oxygen difference (or "a-vO2 diff"). His solution? "Forgetting fortnight".

The method worked like this. After first teaching this tricky subject, Nigel gave his students a short test. He then gave them a fortnight to forget. Returning to the topic, he embarked on some brief re-teaching but less than the time initially given. The third attempt at the topic, a fortnight later, not only took up less lesson time (eight minutes to include attempt and review), but demonstrated that the students had forgotten less.

After a period of months, the students then took their January mock examination. The result: both their memory and understanding of a-vO2 diff had improved.

3 Weekly review

Akin to "forgetting fortnight", a weekly review of learning uses the power of spacing to help memory retention. Most teachers feel pressured to get through the curriculum, but if a topic hasn't gone into our students' long-term memories we only create problems later on. A quick weekly review doesn't take much time and can have a big impact. You can ask students to represent the learning of the week in a concept map, a flow diagram or a mind-map. It is the act of reconstructing meaning and getting students to think hard about the main concept that proves memorable.

Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York. He tweets @huntingenglish and blogs at

The Alex Quigley teaching series

Each month in TES, Alex will use the latest research to help you improve key areas of your teaching. Here are the next three topics:


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