This post is based on my talk at ‘Teaching and Learning Leeds: Encouraging the Leader Within’ on 23rd June 2018.
Teaching is fundamentally about making the best possible use of the human brain and helping students to use theirs to their fullest potential. Why then, is there so little focus on how the brain works in initial teacher training and in school based CPD? There are certainly some pockets of excellent practice out there, but the vast majority of teachers on the ground do not have a solid grounding in how we actually learn, and are therefore living in a fog of uncertainty and vague ‘I reckon this will probably work’ territory…
We must lift the fog and empower ourselves to be the most effective teachers we possibly can!
In this post, I will outline the basics of what a classroom teacher or school leader needs to know about how we form memories, and then suggest a range of practical strategies which you could easily start doing in your school or classroom tomorrow morning…
What is the point?
This is the reason we do what we do (arguments about guiding students to become ‘good people’ aside…!) We aim to increase student knowledge and skill in order to equip them for a future we cannot fully see. This means transferring content from their short term to their long term memories.
How the brain learns (the easy version)…
Information is sent to the brain – e.g. during your lesson – through various stimuli (they hear you speak, look at text and images, ‘do’ activities).
The brain looks at the new information, breaks it up into categories and decides where to put each part.
The brain then scans that new information to see if there are any recognisable similarities between the new content and existing knowledge. The brain then makes links between those connected pieces of information – this is how neural networks are created.
Every time a new piece of information comes in, it amends and enhances the existing knowledge. Think of it like this; the brain is NOT an empty vessel which gets gradually more full (like a bath of water), it is more like a lagoon with multiple waterfalls bringing in new information. With every new influx of knowledge (water), the brain (lagoon) changes; old knowledge is updated and enhanced and neural networks are strengthened. This is called brain plasticity.
This changes the way we define learning. It is not helpful to view learning as straightforward knowledge acquisition.
Learning is actually far more complex…
Consequences for ‘The Gap’…
The very nature of the brain means that the more you already know, the easier you learn. Therefore our most privileged students, who already have the advantages of greater academic and cultural capital, find it even easier to learn and make progress. Students without this head start are sadly left even further behind.
The brain is far more emotional than it is rational. This means that a student who is experiencing less stability (such as anxiety, uncertainty, distress or anger) will struggle to encode information for learning. Happy, stable students learn far better, so it is incumbent upon us to create a safe, positive environment in our classrooms, and to champion good mental health practices in our schools.
Short and Long Term Memory
Unfortunately, we can’t just say to our brains: “We need to learn this now, please! It’s going to be on the exam!”
Our brains will only store something in our long term memory if it carries personal significance to us. For example:
Scenario 1: This morning I drove to work behind a blue car. Five minutes after arriving at work, I forgot the colour of the car because my brain decided it wasn’t important. This is my brain deciding what is a priority, and sieving out the unnecessary information.
Scenario 2: This morning I drove to work behind a blue car. I watched as the car hit an old lady and then sped away. I will always remember the colour of the car, the make and a partial number plate. This is my brain deciding that this is very important information because we will need to recall it later for the police.
If we want our students to store things in their long term memories we must ensure that it carries personal significance to them. For example, my husband encoded my birthday to memory immediately when he first learned it, and has never forgotten it (it helps that failing to recall this piece of information has a punishment associated with it…)
Ensure that you are creating the best possible environment for students to be able to encode the information you give them.
Prepare the brain…
Regulate cognitive load…
Cognitive load refers to the amount of work your working memory has to do at one time. Having to retain lots of pieces of information in the working memory (such as numbers when completing a complex maths problem) can limit the amount of work a student can do. This is why students get a calculator in some maths exams; the calculator is a way to regulate cognitive load so that students can use their working memory on the more complex parts of the problems.
Use efficient language…
Make it Stick is a fantastic book on memory which highlights this very key point; many of the things we think must work actually don’t. In fact, ‘massed practice’ brings to mind the much repeated phrase ‘practice makes perfect’, one which I heard many times in my own childhood. Research actually shows that repeated ‘practice’, such as re-reading texts or notes from lessons, does not help students to embed information into long term memory. Re-reading is quite a passive, easy task. The most effective strategy for long term memory retention is to challenge our students to complete hard recall tasks on a regular basis.
At this point, it is very important to get student ‘buy-in’. Many of your students won’t relish the idea of regular quizzes and embracing challenge. I have always championed the idea of introducing students to the same research I am looking at, and making my intentions and reasoning crystal clear. If I start a lesson with, “today we’re going to start with a difficult test”, they will, quite rightly, be less than enthusiastic. If I start my lesson with, “the best way for you to learn something is by doing lots of little recall quizzes. The harder they are, the better. It doesn’t matter if you get things wrong – getting questions wrong is actually really good for the brain!” they are far more likely to engage. My classes know that if something doesn’t feel hard, then it’s not working! They now regularly ask me for more difficult work because, in the words of one student (we will call her Charlie), “what’s the point in me being here if it’s not working? You might as well give me the hardest one.”
These are the slides I show my students when I’m explaining the research and justifying my regular ‘hard’ quizzes…
It is worth mentioning that other popular memory strategies such as analogies, mnemonics, rhyme, letter linking and stories can be very useful early on in the encoding phase of learning, but can be problematic later on. When students need to delve into more abstract areas of a subject, it is often difficult to extract the original information from the analogy (or packaging) it came in. Don’t stop using them (I still use a few for writing frames), but be aware that students might need to free themselves of them further down the line to avoid being limited.
Variation (for deepening and developing knowledge)
Once knowledge is firmly embedded into long term memory, it is necessary to deepen and refine that knowledge so that it can be used in the most sophisticated way. Variation is a key way in which this can be done.
This image uses Conceptual Variation, which is using a range of examples and non-examples to help define an idea. e.g. Show examples of Gothic writing and writing which is not Gothic. Discuss with students what makes things Gothic, and in what circumstances something becomes Gothic.
Contextual Variation is best utilised in TV programs for babies and toddlers – it takes a concept (in this case, ‘connecting things’) and develops a child’s understanding of that concept by showing things being connected in lots of different contexts, such as shoe laces being tied, someone plugging headphones into a socket and someone buttoning up a coat: Twirlywoos
One example of using variation in the classroom is this poetry knowledge crush I have used with my GCSE Literature classes. Students already have the poetry in their long term memories. I have created a NEW poem by taking individual lines from the poems they already know – I have placed them directly next to lines from other poems (contextual variation). This means that they are able to refine and develop their knowledge of the poetry because these lines are now next to others from different genres and styles of poetry (rational variation). The activity also allows from old school hard recall because students first have to annotate the lines with everything they can remember about them without looking at their notes.
Another important strategy for developing knowledge and understanding is ‘Definition’…
How to get students to struggle (and love it!)
- Regular quizzes, from memory, even of things only taught or mentioned once.
- Remember, retrieval beats re-exposure every time – don’t re-teach it, give them a quiz on it instead!
- Quiz questions should always be:
- Unhelpful (NO MULTIPLE CHOICE!)
- Low stakes (the points aren’t the point! They get all the benefit from doing the quiz itself.)
- Self serving (get students to mark and correct their own, otherwise they won’t log their mistakes for next time. Also, you do NOT want all these quizzes to add to your workload!)
- Use ‘Spaced Retrieval’ – build in regular cumulative quizzes to your long and meduium term planning
- Use ‘Interleaving’ – do quizzes during lessons, weave in between topics, quiz on old topics when you’re in the middle of new ones! MIX IT UP!
- Ask students to commplete large pieces of work from memory (e.g. revision clocks and grids – see below)
- When questioning, don’t give answers too easily! Learn to love the awkward silences – they are learning GOLD!
Most importantly; tell them it’s difficult. Tell them it should feel difficult. Get them to embrace the struggle, because that’s where the best learning happens!
In the classroom:
- Ring fence classroom time for memory and retrieval (I do it for the first 5-10 minutes of almost every lesson). This includes things like quotation recall, spelling tests, plot and context recall.
This shows what a student produced from memory in September, versus what she was able to recall by the end of the following October. I highlight recall activities in blue so that the students can see how much they can do from memory.
Revision clocks are quite commonly used in schools now. Revision grids work in the same way but are perhaps a little more versatile – you can put any heading you like in the grid squares and students have the time you give them (this can be directed at a whole class or individual level) to complete it. The first revision grid below also has some boxes which ask students to draw images to go with quotations, which is a form of ‘dual coding’ (see below for more on this). The second revision grid is an example from an art class.
Here are a couple of examples of quiz activities I do with my own students/ They include traditional quiz questions and quotation recall activities. I also use cloze exercises for quotation recall in the earlier stages and then gradually remove that support.:
Here are some examples from History, Biology and English…
Dual coding can also work with other stimuli, such as learning something in more than one language, using music alongside content and using tactile experiences.
Another important ‘hook’ for learning harks back to something I talked about earlier in this post; the emotional brain. If we can tie a piece of information we want students to learn to an emotional experience (such as humour, joy, sadness, empathy), we can help them to embed it more readily, because it has been given personal significance.
When doing quotation recall and chanting with my students, I used my son’s toy guitar. Seeing me dance around at the front of the room was, putting it mildly, memorable. This was because it was funny, and the class shared a sense of ‘what is she doing? She is utterly bizarre.’ This experience, for many students, gave the content some personal significance.
Similarly, I have used a number of current news stories featuring events and people who have a real emotional connection with our students. Many of my students live in the high rise flats which surround our school, so talking about how Stormzy challenged the government over its handling of the Grenfell disaster, was a highly emotional activity for my class. We then went on to discuss the ways in which William Blake and many of the other Romantic poets were pushing for social change, and that Blake’s raw depiction of a young mother struggling to care for her baby in London is the same kind of social protest as Stormzy’s at the MOBO Awards. Again, this gained personal significance for these students, who still remember to talk about Blake’s anti-government, revolutionary stance in their poetry essays.
Metacognition can be a highly effective strategy for promoting retention and recall. If students are able to identify the things they still don’t know, they are noting these things for future encoding.
I use a range of strategies to support my students to master their own learning and engage fully in metacognition. This is one of the things I do very early on in this process in order to scaffold their thinking…
To understand more about metacognition, I would highly recommend the recent report from the EEF: EEF Metacognition
My key goal in creating a memory rich classroom is that students will not reach April of Y11 and suddenly start to revise in panic. The whole point of the strategies above is that, from the very start, we embed routines and good practices for retention and recall, so that students are growing their bank of knowledge over a prolonged period of time. Massed revision, therefore, should not be so important.
It is, however, vital that we teach students how to revise. As we draw close to exams, it is easy for students to fall into some of the bad habits I’ve already mentioned, and start doing ‘revision’ which consists of nothing more than re-reading content and re-writing notes (the easy stuff which has NO positive impact!). They also often fall into the trap of saying they will ‘do History’ for two hours, without any plan for what they will do in that time.
This is an example of a revision menu I have used with my class – it has a bank of challenging activities which they must complete from memory. It has a mix of active and passive activities, and also allows students to make up their revision period (say an hour) with activities of different lengths.
In my experience, giving students a revision menu like this has had a very positive effect on their work during the holidays, and given them a more realistic approach to independent work.
I would strongly recommend that you read these authors for more information on memory and recall. I have taken heavily from Peps Mccrae’s book (one of the best things I have ever read on education) and the article on the brain by Kenneth Wesson.
I’d love to hear from you if you find this useful, or have any comments which might improve anything I’ve said on the cognitive science side of things – I am by no means an expert!