Fail-safe memory-recall techniques for exam students

2nd March 2017 at 09:15
An understanding of memory is integral to improving your students' ability to recall information – here are some of the best memory strategies for pupils

To help your students improve their memory-recall techniques before their exams, it's vital to understand the essential role of memory in learning. 

Misconceptions are often based on rote learning and memorisation, or the mistaken notion that remembering mere titbits of knowledge is pointless in the electronic era of Google.

It's a myth that memory is about how you receive information – it has 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.

It's essential we teachers know how memory works and why it is inextricably linked to how we learn successfully, especially during the fraught revision season. So how can we help fix memory lapses?

Training your brain

Begin by building your knowledge of the workings of the human brain, memory and learning. Researchers Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch 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.

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?

The answers can seem counter-intuitive.

For example: the theory that forgetting is the key to successful learning is nothing new – first shaped by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus with 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

The information that a student finds too easy to understand can fail to be sent to long-term memory because it is glossed over by the brain. What we think hard about is what we remember. 

We therefore need to be careful about how we repeat what we teach so we don't encourage shallow learning.

For example, for GCSE revision classes, rather than asking students to reread texts, have them work hard at focusing their attention on the essential meanings of the text. Rereading feels familiar and easy, and won't prove memorable – after all, they have read it already.

Rather than teaching in topics or blocks, which feels fluent and natural – but is too easy and too fluent – interleave content. 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, forces the brain to do a harder job remembering.

This difficulty is what actually makes the knowledge stick.

It's 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.

An understanding of memory is not an isolated part of education but something that should underpin all learning, informing what we do and why we do it.

Three more vital memory-recall techniques

1. Asking why

Many of the most successful memory recall techniques 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".

Prompting students to give an explanation for things 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 lesson planning and revision activities. For example, we know that pi is 3.14159265359, but why is this number so significant? 

2. 'Forgetting fortnight'

Most students are able to learn difficult topics in the short term but their memory wanes in the long term.

After first teaching a tricky subject, give students a short test then a fortnight to forget. Return to the topic, embarking on some brief reteaching in less time than was initially given. A third attempt at the topic, a fortnight later, should not only take up less lesson time (eight minutes to include attempt and review), but demonstrate that students have forgotten less.

The students' memory and understanding of the topic should have improved by the time they take their exam.

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.

This is an edited version of an article written by Alex Quigley, director of learning and research at Huntington School in York, in 17 April 2015 issue of TES

Visit our revision hub and wave goodbye to stress during exam season. It’s packed with tips, tricks and techniques that can help set your students on the path to success.