What you need to know about memory to aid your pupils' revision

If we recognise the way working memory ‘works’, there is so much teachers can do to support students during exam season, writes one headteacher

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People who can memorise large chunks of information or recall something they’ve just learned without thinking twice fascinate me. (How do the entertainers who remember people’s names in an audience, having only met them once, do it?)

Understanding how we process, learn and retain information is key in the classroom – for both teachers and students – particularly as we enter exam season.  

Dr Andrea Greve, an investigator scientist, says that "learning" is the process of getting information into the brain and then retrieving it when needed. People who initially claim “I can’t remember that” or “I have never been told that” often give the right response when asked to guess the answer because the knowledge is there somewhere in their brain, but not in their short-term memory.

So how do students "get information to the brain" best? And, as teachers, what can we do to make sure this experience is the best it can be?

Those who learn most effectively have good concentration and connect information. The entertainer learning people’s names is listening and then making a connection between the name and the person. In the classroom, children who daydream are not paying attention and do not absorb information into their brain during the lesson. Keeping children focused and interested is the challenge of all teachers. Too much teacher talk rarely keeps them engaged and learning well. Pupils who experience lessons with a variety of tasks are much more likely to stay focused and interested with high levels of concentration. Capturing children’s interest and imagination in a topic means that they are much more likely to want to learn more and, therefore, less likely to drift their attention.

When it comes to the "retrieving information" part of the learning process, Dr Greve suggests that homework provides a way of going over what has been learned to consolidate a solid memory trace so it is possible to retrieve that data later easily.

This is a good rationale for the need for homework – it's important to check that pupils are able to process the learning in the classroom and apply it independently.

"Working memory" is information held briefly to complete a task. This is small amounts of information. "Long-term memory" is what we hold in the background – the information that, if we dig deep, we usually find.

Supporting students' working memory

In my experience, children with "poor" working memory are easily distracted when they strive to follow a list of instructions. They struggle to complete tasks as they are unable to hold in their memory all that is required of them over even a short period of time. I have seen this most clearly teaching Year 5 and Year 7 pupils simple cookery. My usual lesson plan involves demonstrating quickly the key components of the recipe stages and then letting the class cook individually. Some children remember the instructions without having to refresh their memory by reading the recipe, whilst others struggle to recall even the first step. Complex steps in the recipe are also difficult for children with poor working memory to follow, and simplifying the instructions helps.

However, it would be easy to categorise students as those who have "poor" working memory and those who don’t. Although it is difficult to boost working memory, if we recognise the way working memory "works", there is much teachers can do in order to support students. 

Learning needs to be more imaginative to help boost working and long-term memory. When it comes to times tables, pupils should be encouraged to see the number pattern and bonds, not just learn tables as a rhyme. This also assists recall as not only have they learned as a singsong number multiplication, but also they have made a connection, too. For example, children are taught a quick way of remembering the nine times table using their fingers. This creates a visual that is easy to remember. Students who learn large amounts of dialogue for a play are unlikely to be word perfect after a significant gap in performances because they quickly forget, only remembering key lines.

We need to make sure we don't overload children and remember that they need to be able to “forget” in order to learn more. We structure learning to reduce needless memory demands as working memory is capacity-limited. 

Lessons need to be kept interesting and dynamic to make sure learners stay focused and interested. This is best achieved through splitting the lesson into bursts of activity followed by further instruction. For pupils with poor concentration and poor retention, it is crucial that any activity is broken down into simple steps which avoid complex instructions.

And whether you are wanting to boost memory inside or outside the classroom, I find these four steps are a good starting point: 

  • Exercise your brain in the way you would a muscle. Do not use reference sites to remember facts and try hard to recall without prompts. Regularly completing crosswords or number and word games helps to keep your brain alert.
  • Listen carefully when you are told information you need to remember later. Concentration is important in being able to recall data later. 
  • Ditch what you don’t need to know anymore and regularly "spring clean" your brain to enable new information to be retained.
  • Repetition is the best way of making sure information stays stored in the brain. If revising for an examination, the earlier you start repeating key statistics and data, the easier it becomes to remember detail.

Jane Prescott is the headmistress at Portsmouth High School GDST. 

In the 27 April issue of Tes, we have an in-depth investigation into metacognition, which includes exclusive research from the Education Endowment Foundation and asks: have we forgotten how to teach children how to learn?

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