• Science Practical (7)

Interactive teaching and learning blog

Lest we forget!

Lest we forget!

June 20th 2016

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 we decided that developing memory skills was going to be a focus of Weydon’s action research. We 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.

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, 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, your brain works on the premise that you probably won’t need to think about it again, so it therefore is less likely to 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.

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).

With this research and knowledge a number of the curriculum areas carried out action research projects to develop memory skills in our students.

‘Practice makes perfect in DT!’

In DT they wanted to use repetition and practice to help promote mastery of KS4 terminology. They identified areas of weakness with the use of question cards, quizzes and bingo. They then focussed on topics that students struggled with by creating flash cards to force thinking, improve engagement and understanding. They then used the flashcards to test each other in pairs. If they got the answer right they put it on the green pile and if they get it wrong it moves to the red pile. The red pile is repeated until the correct answers are recalled. The activity can be interleaved and repeated at a later date, the idea is the number of reds diminishes over time. Students felt a sense of achievement and knowledge and recall has improved.

‘English are all spaced out!’

In English the demand of the curriculum and the amount of content to recall has increased massively. So as a result they are delivering a curriculum that relies more heavily on interleaving to boost retention. They have been trialling an approach to memory retrieval that increases over a number of lessons. It is based on Maslow’s hierarchy where more and more challenge is built into remembering the same information. For example, to remember quotes, students are given these tests over a series of lessons:

Week one:

•Marks of weakness, marks of ____
•All in the ______ of Death
•Probably armed, __________ not

•________ the softening of my face

Week two: 

•Marks of ________ marks of ____
•_______ in the ______ of Death
•Probably __________, __________ not
•________ the softening of my ______

Week three:

•M_______ of ________ marks of ____
•_______ in the ______ of Death
•Probably __________, __________ not
•________ the softening of my ______


They have embraced the quizzing methodology of online tools like Kahoot and Synap which encourages spaced and frequent retrieval. Students love the challenge of quizzing, whether it is an individual or as a team and students’ are becoming more autonomous and less guided, in their ability to make links and comparisons. The students are now using Synap (https://synap.ac/ ) outside the classroom as a revision tool.

‘Mathematicians find the formula for developing memory’

A number of research triads in Maths investigated the need to develop memory and recall with the rather new and heavy ‘big fat Maths curriculum’. One group used mini plenaries throughout the lesson to check understanding and used the starter as a vehicle to recall knowledge and memory skills via interleaving. Afl confirmed that these techniques were having a positive impact on attainment. Another triad trialled the idea that students’ needed to overlearn material, to improve retention. They used memory games full of facts and formulae on the screen, taking one away and asking which one had gone. They would end by removing them all and the students had to recall them one by one. Low ability students had great success with this technique and their ability to recall square numbers and a formulae song improved considerably.

Another triad researched different methods of memorising such as the Frayer Model (a graphic organiser for building student vocabulary explained here on the Teacher Toolkit web page http://www.theteachertoolkit.com/index.php/tool/frayer-model) , Pelmanism games (matching game e.g. http://www.englishactivities.net/englishgames/pelmanism?topic=World%20-%20European%20countries&level=primary ) , highlighting, visualisation and derivation. The different strategies involved students helping each other through peer to peer activities, recording previous knowledge, extracting and summarising key information from textbooks, following a worked example, using the Frayer model pro-forma and teacher explanation and demonstration. The worked example was particularly liked by students, as it gave them a quick way in to solving a problem by following steps. This could then be consolidated with practise and then a specific example and more generic situation would fully test application. The Frayer Model has great potential and this was highlighted by the students, but needs developing further in maths.

‘Science has Success when researching memory!’

Two research triads in Science investigated how their teaching techniques in the classroom could impact student memory. One group used techniques of visualisation and association imagination to improve the recall of circuits and their symbols. This was done through storytelling, mnemonics, linking shape of a symbol/graph and practical links to a glossary of words. The students were enthused, motivated and engaged and the retention has improved. Another group used research from Heath’s ‘Made to Stick’ book to use the acronym iSucces to improve the memory retention of lower ability Y11 students. The acronym stands for

I – interleaving

S – Simple

U – Unexpected

C – Concrete

C – Credible

E – Emotional

S – Story

Recall of atomic structure, pros and cons of quarrying, tests for saturated and unsaturated fats was greatly increased by the use of interleaving, making the learning practical and concrete, making it emotional and keeping it simple through the use of eye-catching visuals. These techniques seem to work better at improving the recall in the Y11 students and after a number of delayed testing periods the information could still be recalled. Eureka!

It would appear that by researching memory we have found techniques that are beginning to become embedded in our pedagogy and the regular way we plan and deliver our lessons. Techniques such as interleaving, gaming, visualisation, association imagination and use of simple visuals all have an amazing impact on student retention. Lest we not forget!

By Jackie Sharman – Deputy Headteacher Teaching & Learning – Weydon School

If you enjoyed this blog, you may like these:

Revision techniques made easy

From memory to mastery

Filed under: Teaching Posted at 09:39

Leave a Comment

Register Now

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *