“Children will naturally forget what they have been taught but we can support their knowledge retention,” says Founder and Director of Primary Quiz, Conal Holmes.

Our current inspection framework states that Ofsted inspectors will “consider how well pupils transfer key knowledge to long-term memory and apply it fluently.” They will also “evaluate the extent to which all pupils make progress, in that they know more, remember more and are able to do more.” 1 These statements recognise the importance of knowledge acquisition as part of the learning process and acknowledge a recent but increasingly overwhelming body of evidence from the world of cognitive psychology which could transform teaching and learning in our schools.

It has taken a while to get here. No lecture from my teacher training of 25 years ago explained variations between different memory stores or strategies to help pupils secure new information to their longer-term memory. Furthermore, we became so used to new technologies providing instant access to all the knowledge we could possibly need, that we began to question why it was necessary for pupils to remember any information at all.

But knowledge is important. The more knowledge pupils have, the easier it is for them to acquire new knowledge. One of the most reliable predictors of a child’s success within any lesson is what they already know.

How does our memory work?

In the 1950s and 1960s, influential figures from the world of cognitive psychology emphasised the importance of studying the mind and its cognitive processes – and our understanding of memory has developed significantly since. In 1956, George Miller discussed capacity and duration limitations of short-term memory 2 , and in 1968, Atkinson and Shiffrin developed the Multi-Store Memory Model, identifying three different memory stores: sensory, short term and long-term memory. 3

Our short-term memory allows us to keep information in our minds while we perform mental operations on it. It is essential for various cognitive tasks, such as problem-solving, decision-making, language comprehension and learning new information.

However, it is extremely limited in terms of capacity and duration. Back in 1885, German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus developed his forgetting curve after performing a number of experiments upon himself. We can conclude from his findings that people will forget:

  • Over 40% of everything they have read or heard within the last 20 minutes.
  • 70% of everything they have read or heard within the last 24 hours.

Our long-term memory, however, is more reliable, seemingly unlimited, and stores information which we can remember for many years. The more times we are exposed to particular information, and the more we recall that information, the stronger that memory will become.

Here’s an example. You’re in your kitchen following a recipe you have never used before. Do you read the different steps, memorise the information, close the book and begin to cook? Unlikely. We simply do not have the capacity to retain all this new information. Typically, you would complete each numbered step before moving on to the next with the book open for reference. This is our short-term memory in action, processing information, acting upon it and quickly forgetting it when it is no longer useful.

How many times might you cook the meal before you are able to do it without the recipe?

Typically, 3 or 4 times. By the fourth time, it might be possible to recall all the information needed from your longer-term memory and you may not need to refer to the recipe at all. Each time you subsequently cook the meal, you will recall the information again, securing the place of this memory in your long-term memory store.

Implications for classroom practice

Teachers often become frustrated that children seem to forget things they are taught in class. It is easy to see why this might happen. Every day, children carry out activities which require their short-term memory, processing new information, acting on it, instantly forgetting it once it is no longer useful. They read, solve problems, make decisions, organise, discover – all worthwhile activities, but crucially, the vast majority of this new learning will be rapidly forgotten unless teachers help them to secure it in their long-term memory.

So, what can teachers do? Here are some examples:

  1. Plan a curriculum which exposes pupils to the same content on at least three separate occasions at spaced intervals.
  2. Spend time at the start of each lesson on activities which require pupils to recall and retrieve previously taught content.
  3. Understand the limitations of short-term memory. Avoid overloading pupils with too much information and organise new learning in manageable chunks.
  4. Integrate low-stakes quizzing into lessons using platforms such as Primary Quiz, so pupils can retrieve and recall previously taught content. This will help them to identify what they know and what they don’t.
  5. Provide pupils with opportunities to solve problems before teaching them the solution. This encourages them to trawl their long-term memories for knowledge, strategies and processes they may already possess for a solution.
  6. Encourage pupils to elaborate. Ask them to tell you more, to express new material in their own words and to connect new learning to things they already know.
  7. Ensure every pupil participates. All pupils must retrieve from their own long-term memory. Only using paired or group
    activities may prevent this from happening.
  8. Have high expectations and make it challenging. The more effort it takes to retrieve information, the more effectively the information will secure itself in the long-term memory.
  9. Teach pupils about memory and effective learning, about techniques that work, and about those that don’t (such as over-practising, rereading or last-minute cramming!).

Trends come and go in education, but few are underpinned by such a persuasive body of evidence as this. At last, we have a real insight into how children learn and must ensure that this trend is here to stay. The challenge for educators today is to understand the cognitive processes their students are going through and allow science to steer pedagogy. It’s great that Ofsted has recognised this research in its latest inspection handbook, but let’s not do it for them; let’s do it because it’s absolutely the right thing for our children.

References

1. OFSTED, School Inspection Handbook for Maintained Schools, Updated July 2022, Paragraph 212
2. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”, 1956
3. Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M., “Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”, 1968.

Author

  • Conal Holmes

    Conal has 25 years’ experience in primary education. He has taught every year group from Year 1 to Year 6 and was a headteacher for 11 years. He is the founder of Primary Quiz, an online resource to support pupils and teachers with embedding retrieval strategies.
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