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With a new curriculum that demands students retain more information than ever before, teachers have faced a new set of challenges: how can we help students remember and how can we best check what they have remembered? Such questions not only call for an understanding of the mechanics of memory – the cognitive processes that help build memory and therefore knowledge – but also a consideration of the ways we assess that knowledge. As a result of this, the ways we plan our lessons both in the long and the short term need to adapt in order to provide such opportunities.

How can we help students remember?

In ‘Making Good Progress?’ Daisy Christodoulou writes that the ‘act of recalling information from memory actually helps to strengthen the memory itself’ (Christodoulou, 2016), so from this we can infer that in our teaching we need to build opportunities for recall in order to best embed information in the long term memory – for students to truly know and retain the ‘facts’ they need to be given ample opportunity to recall them regularly. This is not to echo Mr Gradgrind and to ‘Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts’ (Dickens, 1854), but rather because when ‘facts’ are stored in long term memory, the strain on working memory is reduced. Whilst long term memory has a ‘huge capacity’ (Hendrick, 2017), that of working memory is far more limited and recent research suggests that working memory can only store four items of information (Cowan cited in Hendrick, 2017).

Therefore, when ‘facts’ are stored in long term memory, it frees up the working memory and enables students to use the working memory’s limited capacity in order to solve problems or complete more complex tasks, for example answering an essay or exam question. Daniel Willingham sums this up effectively through the statement that ‘for problems to be solved, the thinker needs… the required facts and procedures in long-term memory’ (Willingham, 2009). Essentially, to perform well when faced with a new problem (an exam paper), students need to truly know and have the ability to recall fact. To remember facts, students have to practise recalling them over spaced intervals.

Yana Weinstein argues that in order to convert information to long term memory and to retain that information ‘by far the most important strategies are spaced practise… and retrieval practise’ (Weinstein cited in Hendrick, 2017). Practically, this means that we need to recap, recall and revise prior learning over spaced periods in order to best remember it.

In ‘Spacing Effects in Learning’ it is argued that if learning is compressed into ‘a too-short period [it] is likely to produce misleadingly high levels of immediate mastery that will not survive the passage of substantial periods of time’ (Cepeda et al., 2008). For teachers, it might be the case that students perform well in an end of topic test, for these results to then drop when being retested on the same material much later in. In order to avoid this, and ‘to achieve enduring retention, people must… study information on multiple occasions’ (Cepeda et al., 2008). Again, meaning that topics must be regularly revisited in order for the appropriate knowledge base to be built. In fact, ‘If a person wishes to retain information for several years’ (Cepeda et al., 2008), as we require our GCSE and A Level students to do, ‘a delayed review of at least several months seems likely to produce a highly favorable return… potentially doubling the amount ultimately remembered’ (Cepeda et al., 2008).

In summary, to help students remember the information they need, we need to provide opportunities for them to regularly recall that information and revisit it throughout their courses. We can do this through our curriculum planning: ensuring that topics are regularly revisited and students are given the chance to recall. One such way this can be broached is through the use of starter activities that prompt students to recall prior learning, such as low stakes quizzes.

How can we best check what students have remembered?

One way that we can check what students have remembered is through the use of regular quizzing or testing. This is not to say that students need regular mock exams or summative essays, rather short recall tests and exercises to be used in a formative way. This will not only build in regular opportunities for recall, but also help to inform the teacher of any gaps in knowledge. By using short, multiple choice testing rather than longer, exam style answers, Daisy Chistodoulou makes the point that ‘specific questions allow teachers to diagnose exactly what a pupil’s strengths and weaknesses are’ (Christodoulou, 2016) and that ‘twenty multiple choice questions… would give a teacher a far better understanding’ (Christodoulou, 2016) of what knowledge a student has retained.

Through short, multiple choice quizzes a range of subjects can be covered and the teacher can intersperse recent learning with older topics. Whereas an essay response might test a student’s knowledge in one specific area of a topic, for example the character of Macbeth in ‘Macbeth’, several short questions could give a more specific and more holistic picture. Research behind such ideas suggests that the benefits of such methods are twofold: firstly, to inform teachers and influence planning; secondly, to provide opportunities for recall and spaced retrieval and therefore knowledge and understanding. In fact, ‘testing doesn’t just help measure understanding; it helps develop understanding’ (Christodoulou, 2016). Christodoulou cites research by Roediger and Karpicke in which they state ‘taking a test on material can have a greater positive effect on future retention of that material than spending an equivalent amount of time restudying the material’ (Roediger and Karpike cited in Christodoulou, 2016). Therefore, by testing our students’ knowledge through regular, short and specific quizzes not only are we able to make accurate judgements of their understanding to inform our planning, but also we are improving their knowledge and understanding too.

How does this translate to the classroom?