Understanding memory, and making it work for your students
In the second of our ‘mythbusting’ blog posts, Jonathan Firth considers popular misconceptions about memory, and discusses how an understanding of memory can help to inform teaching.
Making use of the science of learning
The good news for educators is that memory is very well understood by scientists. We can therefore apply memory principles to ensure that what we do with students helps them to develop and retain knowledge and skills, and to later apply this to new situations in their lives.
However, one curious thing about memory is that a lot of its features are not obvious, and cannot be derived from common sense. The way that memory is portrayed in the media – such as in the movies Inside Out and The Bourne Identity – is largely inaccurate (Karpicke, 2016), and there is a large gulf between popular opinions about memory and the scientific consensus about how it works (Simons & Chabris, 2011).
This counterintuitive nature means that teachers are unlikely to develop a good professional understanding of memory through classroom experience alone. But if and when they do gain this understanding, there are many ways that it can be used. In the rest of this post, I’m going to briefly outline what is generally understood and accepted about memory by psychologists, and then explain some of its most powerful applications.
Memory stores and phenomena
What researchers call 'working memory' (WM) is our immediate, here-and-now processing. It’s like the desk space of the mind, at work when students solve a maths problem or draw a line to connect two facts, and it’s what you are using now as you read this. In short, it is the part of your mind that deals with processing and problem solving.
In some ways, WM is probably what you would consider to be thinking (rather than memory). But to think about something you need to retain it, so psychologists consider this to be one of the briefest memory stores – it can store material for a few seconds, and also do things with that material.
'Long-term memory' (LTM), in contrast, is a store that can retain things over hours, days and years, even when you are not focusing on them. It’s a lasting and sometimes permanent store rather than a temporary one, and allows us to retain skills and knowledge for future use.
Some of the key features of these stores are as follows:
- Information enters WM if we pay attention to it, while LTM thrives on emotion; neutral/dull things are easily forgotten, but students tend to retain things which they find amusing, curious, or even disgusting.
- LTM preferentially encodes and stores meaningful information. This is why when recounting a story or joke we remember the gist, not the exact words used when we first heard it.
- Forgetting is faster at first and then slows down (the ‘forgetting curve’) meaning that a lot of what is covered in a single lesson will have been forgotten within a few hours. As such, we can observe performance during a single lesson, but can only infer learning over the longer term (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015).
- Students retain things in context rather than as separate bits of information; it is easier to recall things in the same situation as they were first learned, but variety makes the learning more flexible.
- LTM is dynamic and multi-sensory. We remember things better if they come to us in multiple ways (one of the reasons that trying to stick to a single ‘learning style’ is not a good idea), and when we actively bring to mind and use new information.
Clearly not everything stays in memory – or at least, it does not remain accessible. The challenge, then, is to ensure that the skills and knowledge gained in school and elsewhere can be recalled and used in future situations (sometimes years later). The next section looks at how the principles above – the basic features of our memory stores – can be put to work.
Some memory-based techniques for educators
1) Pay attention to attention
Information enters working memory via attention, and is therefore at risk when students are tired and their attention wanders. However, some ‘mind wandering’ is probably inevitable, and it may play a role in creativity. So, while we should aim to catch and hold students’ attention for short spells during key inputs, it’s also worth building in quiet reflection tasks, giving students a chance to make sense of what they have been doing.
2) Engage learner curiosity
In order to boost attention, curiosity is important. A great example of this can be seen in the essays by Malcolm Gladwell which typically start with a problem or personal story, engaging the reader. Learners love stories, especially ones with puzzles! Science learning, for example, appears to be better remembered if it is linked to a personal narrative of how new information was first discovered (Arya & Maul, 2012). Lessons often start with learning intentions, and while these can help with learning, they are not always presented in the most effective way (Sana et al., 2020). Rather than starting with “Today we are going to be learning about...”, how about going with “Have you ever wondered...?”
3) Move around, and vary the learning context
Given the importance of context in learning, it’s worth noting that the context that learners retrieve information (e.g. the exam hall, the workplace) is often different from where it was learned, and if a lot of information is learned in the same context then it will be less distinctive in memory (Smith et al., 1978). Ideally, let’s move away from the idea that students need to sit at a single desk, repeatedly looking at the same information again and again. Instead, increased variation during practice will lead to students being better able to recall and apply what they have learned. This could include outdoor learning, but it could also mean varying the task, the groupings, or even the perspective from which students look at their work.
4) Links and deeper learning
People remember things better if they think about them in a complex, meaningful way. For example, it would lead to a more lasting memory if you were to think about the meaning of set of words than if you were to focus on the sound of those words or how they were spelled (Craik & Tulving, 1975). Such meaningful processing activates links with existing knowledge, making the new learning easier to recall. It's even better if visual and verbal material is combined, and if the material is linked to rich, detailed applications. The practical implications of this is that rote memorisation in the absence of understanding is likely to lead to short-term performance and rapid forgetting. As noted earlier, memory and understanding are not in opposition! Instead, the more fully we can link new learning to prior learning, the better. Try asking learners to make predictions about what comes next, to form ideas into a narrative, or to sketch or doodle their interpretations of a new concept.
5) Spacing it out
Given that forgetting is faster at first and then slower later (see above), the timing of learning is important – and is also relatively easy for teachers to manipulate (Firth, 2021). The ‘spacing effect’ (also known as distributed practice) is the very well-established but little-used principle that for any material, information is better remembered if there is a larger rather than smaller interval between the first time it is studied and the second (Cepeda et al., 2008). While it might seem obvious that new learning should be consolidated soon after a class (homework the same evening, for example), the spacing effect means that this is not very time efficient; it’s better to practice after forgetting has started to kick in. And for a given period of practice, spacing it out into two or more sessions will be far more effective than a single longer session. Evidence is also accumulating that one of the primary functions of sleep is to help to stabilise and consolidate long-term memories in the brain (e.g. see Rasch & Born, 2013), and so a delay may help learners to better integrate new learning with prior knowledge overnight.
6) Contrasting concepts
Again, it might seem obvious that we should teach concepts one at a time, each in a neatly organised chunk – a single historical event in one lesson, for example, and a different one in the next. However, in the real world, situations aren’t neatly categorised – information comes at us in complex, mixed-up ways. Practicing with a mixture of examples, some relevant to a concept and others not, allows students to fully understand where the boundaries of that concept lie. For example, geography students don’t just need to who what an oxbow lake is, they also need to know what it isn’t. Basketball players don’t just need to know how to make a free throw, they also need to know how not to do it. Interleaving means learning with mixed rather than categorised examples and tasks. While it results in significantly more learning across a range of materials (Kang, 2016), learners tend to avoid the technique. So aim to mix up examples in the classroom, and show contrasting material (real world examples, quotes, images, or short questions) so as to help students draw comparisons.
7) Whole-class active retrieval
Getting information into memory is of course essential, but it does not guarantee that we can get it out again when needed – such as in an exam or in everyday life. People learn better when they are tested than when they study more passively, as it is active and forces them to think about, recall and create associations with the new information. But it’s not just about tests; students retrieve what they have studied when discussing it, giving presentations, writing essays, and in a host of other ways. This strategy is known as ‘retrieval practice’, and is considered one of the most effective educational interventions, along with spacing (Dunlosky & Rawson, 2015). It can also be combined with spacing in various ways, for example:
- Giving a pop quiz to learners after a 30-minute delay rather than immediately.
- Setting a homework essay on a topic one month later rather than the same week.
- Oral questioning of students at the beginning of the next lesson as a starter, rather than as a plenary on the same day.
Each of the seven strategies above will help to ensure that information enters memory and is retained in a meaningful, useable way. Each promotes learning by prompting learners to focus on, think about and use information.
Overall, it’s important to emphasise that these strategies are underused, in part because many are counterintuitive and feel like they are making learning harder. Cognitive psychologists Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Bjork (2011) have called techniques like spacing and interleaving ‘desirable difficulties’, as they make learning harder in the here and now but are more effective in the long run. These short-term difficulties often discourage students and teachers alike. But this counterintuitive nature of memory makes it a great area for engaging with the research literature to enhance your practice, and it is well worth trying out these techniques systematically.
What next? In terms of the ways that educators could use memory to improve their practice, this post only really scratches the surface. If you’d like to know more, why not sign up to one of the School of Education’s CLPL opportunities on this topic? It would also be a great area for practitioner enquiry, or for a Masters or doctoral research project.
This post is partly based on Chapter 1 of 'Psychology in the classroom: A teacher’s guide to what works' by Marc Smith and Jonathan Firth. And see this list for some excellent further reading on this topic, curated by psychologist Pooja Agarwal.
Arya, D. J., & Maul, A. (2012). The role of the scientific discovery narrative in middle school science education: An experimental study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 1022–1032. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028108
Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In Gernsbacher, M. A., Pew, R. W., Hough, L. M. & Pomeranz, J. R. (Eds.) Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (pp. 56–64). Worth.
Cepeda, N. J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning a temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science, 19(11), 1095–1102. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02209.x
Craik, F. I., & Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104(3), 268–294. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-34184.108.40.2068
Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2015). Practice tests, spaced practice, and successive relearning: Tips for classroom use and for guiding students’ learning. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(1), 72–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000024
Firth, J. (2018). Is it all just memorisation? The Profession: The Annual Publication for Early Career Teachers, 1, 31–35.
Firth, J. (in press). Boosting learning by changing the order and timing of classroom tasks: Implications for professional practice. Journal of Education for Teaching, 47(1).
Kang, S. H. (2016). The benefits of interleaved practice for learning. In Horvath, J. C., Lodge, J. M. & Hattie, J. (Eds.) From the laboratory to the classroom: Translating science of learning for teachers (pp. 79–93). Routledge.
Karpicke, J. D. (2016). A powerful way to improve learning and memory: Practicing retrieval enhances long-term, meaningful learning. Psychological Science Agenda. http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory.aspx
Rasch, B., & Born, J. (2013). About sleep’s role in memory. Physiological Review, 93, 681–766. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00032.2012
Sana, F., Forrin, N. D., Sharma, M., Dubljevic, T., Ho, P., Jalil, E., & Kim, J. A. (2020). Optimizing the efficacy of learning objectives through pretests. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 19(3), ar43.
Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (2011). What people believe about how memory works: A representative survey of the US population. PloS one, 6(8), e22757.
Smith, M., & Firth, J. (2018). Psychology in the classroom: A teacher's guide to what works. Routledge.
Smith, S. M., Glenberg, A., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Environmental context and human memory. Memory & Cognition, 6(4), 342–353. doi: 10.3758/BF03197465
Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 176–199. doi: 10.1177/1745691615569000