What every teacher should know about … memory

There is a wealth of psychology research that can help teachers to improve how they work with students – but academic studies of this kind aren’t always easy to access, or to translate into the realities of classroom practice. This series seeks to redress that, by taking a selection of studies and making sense of the important information for teachers.

No one study or journal can provide a definitive answer, but they can help offer some guidance. Some of the studies I will choose in these articles are iconic, some quirky, some are large scale, and some have a small sample size. But all of them look to help answer the question: how can we help our students do better at school? We begin with a study on memory.

Long-term learning

How do our students learn? The ability to retain and recall information is central to improving memory, knowledge and learning. But do students know what works, and are they using the best strategies? In 2013, researchers from Kent State University, Duke University, University of Wisconsin and University of Virginia published a review of hundreds of studies to explore which strategies are most likely to lead to long-term learning.

This study is one of the most thorough and comprehensive appraisals on strategies that students employ to improve their memory. It is often the first piece of psychological research that we recommend teachers read in our work advising schools on learning techniques.

What are the main findings?

Two techniques were rated as being very effective for improving long-term memory:

  • Practice testing. This is where students have to generate an answer to a question. It can include past papers, multiple choice questions or doing practice essay answers. It’s a technique that has been extensively researched and is consistently found to be one of the most effective ways to improve learning.
  • Distributed practice. Sometimes referred to as “spacing”, distributed practice involves doing little bits of work often instead of a lot all at once (ie cramming). Essentially, students remember more if they spread out their learning; for instance, one hour a day for eight days rather than eight hours in one day.

Two techniques were found to be fairly effective strategies:

  • Elaborative interrogation. Asking “why is this true?” or “why might this be the case?” helps students think about the material and make connections to previously learned information. However, this technique does require students to have a good base knowledge for it to work effectively.
  • Interleaved practice. Interleaving is where students mix up either the types of problem or different subjects, so as to avoid “blocking” their time on just one type of question. This helps keep things fresh and makes it easier for students to identify similarities and differences between the materials they are studying.

Finally, these two strategies were found to be not very helpful at all in improving students’ ability to recall information at a later date:

  • Highlighting/underlining. Despite being the weapon of choice for many students, highlighting material often fails to lead to long-term learning. This is because it’s often done on autopilot, doesn’t help students make connections from previous learned material and doesn’t help them make inferences on what they are learning. By itself, highlighting is not the worst technique – it’s more a case of how students use it, with many excessively over-highlighting, making it more akin to colouring in.
  • Rereading. Although students may feel that they have learned something if they can point to a whole chapter they’ve read, it may not be as beneficial as they think. This is because people sometimes end up skim-reading, which doesn’t require them to think very deeply about what it is they are looking at.

Related research

Numerous researchers from around the world have run studies that support these findings. For practice testing to be most effective, it has to be done at “low-stakes”, which means it isn’t increasing stress levels of students and isn’t used as a form of judgment on their abilities. Other research has supported the use of spacing out learning – found to be effective because it allows time for students to forget and relearn the material, which cements it into their long-term memory.

What does this mean for the classroom?

How can teachers use these findings? It will vary, of course, depending on the nature of your cohort and the subject you teach. But ideas include using the testing effect by setting up short quizzes at the start or end of a lesson. Meanwhile, look to revisit previous topics (distributed practice) – important now that students no longer do modular exams.

We need to teach our students what does and doesn’t work. Each minute spent highlighting or re-reading is 60 seconds not spent doing something more effective. As the authors of this study state, “a premium is placed on teaching students content and critical-thinking skills, whereas less time is spent teaching students to develop effective techniques and strategies to guide learning… teaching students to use these techniques would not take much time away from teaching content and would likely be most beneficial if the use of the techniques was consistently taught across multiple content areas, so that students could broadly experience their effects on learning and class grades”.

Bradley Busch is a registered psychologist, director at InnerDrive and author of Release Your Inner Drive. Follow him @Inner_Drive on Twitter, and get advice on improving memory and a visual summary of this research on his website.

For further information please visit https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/oct/06/what-every-teacher-should-know-about-memory