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Interactive teaching and learning blog

From memory to mastery

January 10th 2015

In an educational era post modular and recognition in light of the Wolf report that most qualifications except GCSE are suitable for all abilities we are left with a need to ensure that our students can retain large amounts of information for the myriad of exams they will need to sit. I am sure, like me, you have had the frustrating experience where a class remembers something well by the end of the lesson but seems to have completely forgotten it the next! This is especially pertinent with students in low ability groups. For this reason I decided that I needed to research how memories are stored and how as teachers’ we can improve retention of information by the techniques we adopt in the classroom.  With thanks to Joe Kirby for his excellent blog, which has been heavily quoted and referenced.


How memory works

(quoted from Joe Kirby’s blog https://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/memory/ )

Cognitive scientists Dan Willingham and Robert Bjork have been thinking about the issue of how memory works for several decades. Their research helps explain how we commit things to memory and how we can avoid forgetting them. They have concluded that if we want memories to stick rather than slip away and we want our memory system to remember later then you must think about something carefully (and repeatedly) – by thinking about it again and again, there is a greater chance of storage. If you don’t think about something very much in the first place, then you probably won’t want to think about it again, so it need not be stored. Your memory is a product of what you think most carefully about. What students think about most carefully is what they will remember.

So why might students forget things they’ve been taught?


If we try to delve and find reasons why ? Willingham suggests a number of reasons:

1.       Attention: you can’t remember things you haven’t paid sustained attention to in working memory

2.       Storage: you have paid attention, but it hasn’t made it into long-term memory – it never stuck

3.       Usage: you can’t remember things that no longer reside in long-term memory – they have faded through disuse

4.      Transfer: your process by which things are drawn from long term memory is prone to failure: transfer is difficult, because it’s difficult to apply abstractions to new situations

So, as Charles Fernyhough stated in ‘Pieces of Light’, ‘Simply being exposed to a stimulus does not guarantee that you will remember it. You need to act on the stimulus in some way; you need to process it. Remembering depends on many factors, but at the very least it requires attention.’ So in the classroom we need to ensure that students have focus, spend sufficient time on the subject, practice it, revisit it, consolidate and apply it. Did you know as stated in the ‘The Amazing Teenage Brain’ that babies have larger brains than teenagers! They have more grey matter in their cortex which is the region of the brain responsible for processing thoughts and memory. Your brain prunes memories as you mature. It gets rid of things that it thinks you no longer require. It becomes more efficient, use it or lose it! (revisit information on a regular basis and you could improve intellect and reading ability!)

Impact of this research on the classroom

Chapman, Garnett & Jervis talk about some research they carried out in the classroom around the use of starters and plenaries they called the starters ‘da Vinci moments’. The results of their research were clear. The students’ attention is highest at the beginning and at the end of the lessons – if they are alerted to the fact that the end is coming. The benefit of starter and plenary activities at these times is evident. More radically, why don’t we have more ‘starts’ and ‘ends’ within lessons? For example in a fifty minute lesson we could split it into three fifteen minute episodes (leaving five minutes for administration, lesson changeover etc) e.g.  three start phases, three da Vinci moments and three mini plenaries. This would be a powerful lesson where concentration and energy would be very high indeed. The da Vinci moment has the important effect of potentially stopping the mid-lesson dip. If you have lots of clear starts and ends within lessons you would produce a graph looking something like below (retention is on the y axis).


For some of us we will know this as CHUNKING and chunking learning in this way within a lesson allows multiple effects. Another approach could be to divide up the topic focus in a lesson into three parts A,B and C. Spend fifteen minutes of the lesson focussed on A, fifteen minutes on B and fifteen on C. Repeat this over three lessons. Teachers told them that students remembered far more of all parts of A,B and C than if they focussed on A in lesson 1, B in lesson 2 and C in lesson 3. The effectiveness comes from the mixing up of the topics in each lesson rather than spending all fifty minutes on one subject. This supports Willingham’s theory of attention, storage, usage and transfer. The danger of this technique is that you dilute the challenge of the activity, if however, you ensure that the content is sufficiently challenging at the top end of blooms, (e.g.  analyse, evaluate & create ) then it has a powerful effect on memory and recall because the student is really having to engage and process the content. It is also worth remembering that you need to ‘stimulate’ the interest of the students and this comes from using da vinci moments that ‘hook’ the students as well as challenge. This comes under figure 1 as the environment. Starters which are visual, audio and kinaesthetic all assist the memory as they use the five senses as Fernyhough states in Pieces of Light, information received by the sensory organs is transmitted to the memory systems of the brain via the waystation of the thalamus. Our attention is going to be better ‘grabbed’ by using stimulating ‘hooks’.

An example of this might be as follows:-

da vinci

This lesson is giving students an opportunity to revisit, consolidate and apply factual information about fractional distillation and the pollution from fuels while learning about biodiesel. The use of command words, explain, justify & evaluate ensure the challenge in the activity.

With all this in mind I have been experimenting with my lower pathways in years 10 & 11 to try and assist them to retain more information. Recently in my Y11 group I was revisiting limestone for the third or fourth time over a three year period and was once again quite disappointed that they remembered very little of what had been taught before. What I was intrigued by though, was that they remembered the pros and cons of quarrying. Not the most interesting area of Chemistry but they had engaged with it! I started to reflect on this and try and unpick why this had stuck. When I taught this lesson I showed them a clip of a man who was very upset that lorries from the local quarry roared past his house two or three times a day making his house shake and causing exhaust pollution which was a potential threat to his health. They often talked about this when they remembered the cons.

This response is supported by Ranpura who states that “Our memories are rich because they are formed through associations. When we experience an event, our brains tie the sights, smells, sounds, and our own impressions together into a relationship. That relationship itself is the memory of the event”. Ranpura also states “Reinforcement can come in the form of repetition or practice; we remember that two plus two equals four because we’ve heard it so many times. Reinforcement can also occur through emotional arousal; most people remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot because of the highly emotional content of that event. Arousal is also a product of attention, so memories can be reinforced independent of context by paying careful attention and consciously attempting to remember”. Maybe my Y11 remembered the pros and cons of quarrying because it struck an emotional chord, they put themselves in the eyes of the man whose house shook every time the limestone lorry went past his house?

Armed with this knowledge I am trying to use da Vinci starters that hook the students in an emotional way, not always possible in Chemistry but I intend never to miss an opportunity. As teachers we need to make sure that students have learnt the content, we need to check whether we have really taught it with sufficient time and attention. Have we sufficiently revisited it? Consolidated it in their minds? Have they mastered it? Has it stuck? What was still puzzling me though was why some students were able to remember information better than others? Some students seemed to be able to retrieve the information far more effectively than others.

Why cramming fails...

Kirby summarises in his blog the work of Bjork a cognitive scientist he states “Robert Bjork’s model of memory is a grid of storage strength and retrieval strength. Storage strength is how well learned something is. Retrieval strength is how accessible it is.


This, Kirby goes on to explain, is why cramming fails: cramming exam content has high retrieval rate but low storage strength because it wasn’t very well learnt in the first place, it has been forgotten. He talks about the French he learnt at school which he spoke well up until the age of eighteen which has high storage strength but low retrieval strength. It was mastered and then buried but it could be mastered again given some practice….. I resonate this with the German I learnt at school! The way I am going to remember information well and master it is to increase my storage strength and increase my retrieval strength.

Kirby then asks the question “So how can we help students remember what they’ve learned?’ and suggests:

1.       Distributing practice (rather than cramming): ‘it is virtually impossible to become proficient at any mental task without extended, dedicated practice distributed over time.’ This is why it is important to teach students how to compile and stick to an effective revision timetable.

2.       Overlearning: keep students learning after they know the material to prevent forgetting: a good rule of thumb is to put in another 20 percent of the time it took to master the material’

3.       Testing frequently : testing students frequently helps them remember material (e.g.the Da Vinci moments)

Bjork makes similar suggestions

1.       Spacing – (rather than massing) practice: information that is presented repeatedly over spaced intervals is learned much better than information that is repeated without intervals

2.       Interleaving: although people think that they learn better when content is blocked, rather than interleaved, people actually learn content better when it is interleaved with other content

3.       Testing: using our memory improves our memory: the act of retrieval helps us remember the things we recall. When information is successfully retrieved from memory, its representation in memory is changed such that it becomes more recallable in the future (Bjork 1975) and this improvement is often greater than the benefit resulting from additional study (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).

 A great illustration of how counterintuitive the testing effect is comes from David Didau:

‘Which of these study patterns is more likely to result in long-term learning?

1.       study study study study – test

2.       study study study test – test

3.       study study test test – test

4.       study test test test – test

Most of us will pick 1. It just feels right, doesn’t it? Spaced repetitions of study are bound to result in better results, right? Wrong. The most successful pattern is in fact No. 4. Having just one study session, followed by three short testing sessions – and then a final assessment – will outperform any other pattern. Who would have thought?’”

This well written piece in Kirby’s blog makes me think about my Year 10 group I have been using the theory of Da Vinci moments to ’ interleave’ the theory of fractional distillation. I have used molymods, animations and silly voices and singing to engage with the emotional region of the brain but they still can’t recall the information. Research shows that it’s important to spread out learning over time. That means learning a little bit at a time. Doing so allows links between neurons to steadily strengthen. It also allows glial cells time to better insulate axons. The result of this can be an “aha!” moment — when something suddenly becomes clear — this doesn’t come out of nowhere. Instead, it is the result of a steady accumulation of information. That’s because adding new information opens up memories associated with the task. Once those memory neurons are active, they can form new connections. They also can form stronger connections within an existing network. Over time, your level of understanding increases until you suddenly “get” it. So when we redesign our assessment and curricula we should be designing it with memory in mind. We should be making sure that the content ‘spirals’ from Y7 through to Y11 to give the connections time to be stimulated and for learning to be mastered. We should ensure our assessment reflects the study test test test – test model and finally that the learning has a context, it is emotionally relevant to ensure maximum engagement and retrieval. Good luck!

Guest post by Jackie Sharman, Weydon School

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If you found this post useful, consider  reading 'Observations from Shanghai'



1.       http://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/memory/

2.       Bjork’s research can be read here: http://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/research.html

3.       Willingham’s research into memory can be read here:http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/winter0809/willingham.pdf

4.       “Practice Makes Perfect—But Only If You Practice Beyond the Point of Perfection,” American Educator,Spring2004, http://www.aft.org/pubsreports/american_educator/spring2004/cogsci.html

5.       “Why Students Think They Understand—When They Don’t,” American Educator, Winter 2003-04

6.       “Students Remember … What They Think About,” American Educator, Summer 2003

7.       “Allocating Student Study Time: ‘Massed’ versus ‘Distributed’ Practice,” American Educator, Summer 2002

8.       Fernyhough, Charles 2012 ‘Pieces of Light – The New Science of Memory’ 1st ed

9.       Chapman, Garnett & Jervis 2011 ‘Improving Classroom Performance’ 1st ed

10.   “Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder” David Didau 2013 www.learningspy.co.uk

11.   Morgan, Nicola 2013 “ Blame my Brain: The Amazing Teenage Brain  Revealed revised edition


Filed under: Teaching Posted at 07:11

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