Over the last academic year, we have been looking at memory and learning, with a view to explore the science behind how we, (or more so, our students) learn. Although the ‘scientific’ aspect remains unchanged, the strategies used to enhance students’ learning will obviously evolve over time, in particular, as more and more resources are shared across various platforms to enhance knowledge, retrieval, long term learning etc. Saying that, I think that this can be one of the most difficult aspects in teaching; we are frequently faced with change: there is always a new ‘buzz’ strategy, new curricula, new frameworks and of course, the ever changing student as time goes on, to name a few.

Long term memory

However, the element I have enjoyed the most on my own learning journey of memory and long term learning is in fact the very opposite of this. The science of learning is just that. It doesn’t change. Fact. Reading a recent article by Tom Sherrington (TeacherHead) brought home that there are some key evidence based ideas which will always remain concrete and as he quite rightly points out these are ones which every teacher must know.

We have already visited some of these ideas over the course of the year and those new are well worth looking into as we continue to understand how we learn most effectively. I have taken an extract from Sherrington’s post below; each highlights the key learning point as well as the implications these have in our day to day teaching practice.

Extract taken from TeacherHead blog post (March 2018)

Learning is about knowledge in long-term memory, not immediate performance

  • Implication: Teach for the long-term; make it your explicit intention that whatever knowledge, skills and understanding (aka ‘knowledge’) you are teaching, students should be able to demonstrate that they’ve learned it at some point in the future – not just immediately.  This means you’ll need to check back later – with all of them. It means you also need to teach them how to remember things and practice things without leaving it to chance

Memory is strengthened by retrieval practice.

  • Implication:  Learning does not miraculously ‘sink in’.  It’s essential to use and to teach retrieval methods routinely: low stakes quizzing, key practice routines, mental rehearsal methods, well designed assessment regimes that support the accumulation of knowledge over time – and strategies for revision that replace weak ideas like ‘going over your notes’ with self-quizzing and elaboration.

Learning builds in schemas; knowledge allows you to accrue more knowledge; you can’t build a house without foundations.

  • Implications:  Firstly – you can’t have too much knowledge; it all helps; it’s all good. Secondly, you need to invest heavily in building secure foundations, checking students’ prior knowledge and activating it before giving them more. Weak schemas usually explain common misconceptions – so anticipate them and tackle them head on rather than waiting to see if they form.  Finally, you need to go back to the basics if that is where your students are at.

We remember what we think about – memory is the residue of thought. (Willingham)

  • Implication:  Plan lessons so that students will spend maximum time thinking about the specific learning at hand – not extraneous material, distracting product-making activities or excessive additional references or additional layers of complexity.  Eg if you want students to gain fluency with a word, they should use it, practice saying it, writing it, organising it amongst others – not, say, paint a picture that might be related to the word.  They will remember what they do and think about. You don’t want them to remember how to paint if confidence in using a word is what you’re after. Science theory and practical work each have an important role – but don’t do one if you want students to learn the other; they will learn the one they think about the most at any given time.

Direct instruction is most important with novice learners, especially those with weak prior knowledge and low confidence. 

  • Implication:  Take care to plan instructional sequences so that key ideas are explored very directly, deliberately and carefully, avoiding overload or under-guided learning that allows misconceptions or fixed mindsets to take root through repeated confusion.  Use lots of modelling and checking for understanding before moving to a guided practice phase; scaffold the support taking account of students’ emerging confidence with the material.  Deep-end problems need care – students are unlikely to work out complex ideas for themselves unless they have secure prior knowledge at the right level.

Learning is most effective when cognitive load is optimized. 

  • Implication:  Plan learning sequences carefully so that concepts flow well, building steadily and cumulatively, allowing students to secure confidence through modelling and practice of each step rather than a whole sequence -eg with multi-stage problems in Maths.   Also notice when students are beginning to develop some fluency so that you do not then overload them with extraneous support – let them use the expertise they’ve developed.  Guide practice, but not too much.  Also, strip out unnecessary layers of distraction – visual noise, actual noise, filler material. Knowing things for the sake of it is good. Because there is always a sake and knowing things never stifles creativity; one fuels the other.

Responsive teaching – a two-way interactive process – is essential: more effective teachers ask more questions to more students, in more depth, checking for understanding, involving all learners. (Wiliam, Nuthall, Rosenshine) 

  • Implication:  As you can’t see learning, you need to be constantly seeking feedback to you from your students about the extent of their understanding.  This means asking lots of questions to multiple students, with probing exchanges to establish what they’ve learned and how well you’ve been teaching them.  One student’s response is never going to be enough – at least, that’s a huge and risky assumption. Avoid the classic pitfall of rhetorical questions like ‘is everyone ok with that?’

These ideas really did provide me with food for thought. In teaching, there is A LOT to think about but when it comes down to it, we need to ensure that in our filtering of information, we retain those concrete, simple ideas. In an ideal world, we would like to think that we consider all of the above all the time however, we may also need to fine tune certain aspects before we can deliver on all. For me, working on remembering what we think about will be the focus for this half term. What will yours be?

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