If They Don’t Remember
Can They Really Know?
With external exams returning this summer, the next few months will be a testing time for many
young people (and for teachers) who have faced ongoing disruptions to their learning since the
This makes teaching them effective learning techniques they can use in the classroom and
during independent study more important than ever, which is why I’ve updated my 2018 paper
on evidence-based strategies in the light of Covid. I hope you find it useful.
Costa Constantinou (BA, MA, PGCE)
Director of Educational Services
If They Don’t Remember, Can They Really Know?
Tips for using effective revision strategies that strengthen students’ retrieval capacity
“But… I don’t know how to revise…” Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s a common phrase we hear from our students when it comes to exam prep. It can also serve as a reminder that it is vital we consider not just the content of what we teach, but also how students learn this material. As Dr. John Dunlosky points out in his article ‘Strengthening the student toolbox- study strategies to boost learning’, teaching students how to study is just as important as teaching them the content. Exploring and demonstrating effective learning strategies with students is crucial if we are going to train them to move away from unhelpful practices like last minute ‘cramming’ sessions, caffeine-fueled all-nighters and the highlighting of everything on a worksheet or textbook meaning the re-reading of it almost in its entirety.
Unfortunately, there are no magic tricks I can teach pupils for retaining information for an exam (as much as I would love there to be). Learning is achieved through hard work and continuous effortful practice. However, there are some very useful techniques and tips I would encourage. Strengthening the retrieval capacity of our students is essential and if we manage to store information into longterm memory, we are able to retrieve it again and again and again.
Working with my own pupils as well as planning and delivering the student Brain Booster masterclass workshops I deliver for Veema Education has meant I have developed a deep interest in neuroscience and the science of learning. However, what I feel is sometimes missing from the research papers are simple, practical revision strategies we as teachers can adopt to enable our learners to maximise the impact of their revision. So what follows is a list of the ones that I have found to really effective:
Retrieval practice is one of the most effective ways of learning that leads to fluency. Trying to recall something from memory requires mental strain and effort, which is why low stake-testing rather than simply reading, highlighting and re-reading information is more effective. When reading text from a textbook or worksheet have pupils answer a series of questions to test their knowledge and understanding from memory. These can be questions that have been prepared earlier or questions that you get students to prepare themselves. Knowing that students are about to test each other can be a wonderful engagement tool! To take this a step further, include some more challenging and higher order thinking questions that encourage them to think about how this new learning relates to previous information they have learnt in the past–whether this being yesterday’s lesson or something from last term.
Graphic Organisers such as mind maps, spider maps, sequential thinking and Venn diagrams should be used as much as possible for students to show their thinking and understanding of key ideas and topics from memory. When learning, students need to be active and graphic organisers are a fantastic way of reconstructing information they have been exposed to whilst making useful links and connections to what they already know.
Flashcards are a common resource students use when revising but research tells us that around 30% of people do not use flashcards to self-test (Hartwig and Dunlosky, 2012). This this is real shame as there are great ways flashcards can be used to test knowledge and understanding and memory. For example, you can train students to create flashcards in the following way:
- Write a concept or key term at the front of the flashcard and at the back get students to write down their answer. This can then be checked with the original answer to see how well they have done. This is an effective way of selfquizzing how much you know and where the gaps might be.
- While reading information, highlight key words, concepts, theories and at the same time translate this information to a set of flashcards, which can then be used for self-testing purposes.
- Combine writing with a visual illustration. Students can then test themselves by explaining this in more detail at the back of the flashcard.
One thing I would say with flashcards (and I’ve told this to my students many a time) is be weary of totally dropping from the pack the ones that you feel you are confident with. You should aim to revisit material as often as you can especially in the build-up to exams.
Cornell Note taking. I love the Cornell note taking system and many of my GCSE and A-level students did too. This is an excellent way of getting students to think metacognitively (McCabe 2001), asking questions, noting key terms, and summarising the content being revised at the end of a lesson or during independent study. This method enables students to self-test what they have covered in the lesson as well as piece together previously learnt information. You can download a guide I produced last year of how to use this and it’s a definitely worth exploring with students.
Spacing out your learning and revisiting material as often as possible is so important for embedding. This is one reason why I feel we constantly need to expose students to information they have previously learnt either in the lesson or through homework, mixing up material from different units in class tests or assessments if they are going to hang onto the knowledge they gain.
The key here to effective revision is not the hours of cramming you do in the final few weeks or days before the exam but regular, focused, shorter sessions with regular brain breaks. Cedepa et al (2008) in their research on spacing effects in learning show that the optimal intervals for retaining information between study sessions for say one week should be between one or two days, six months three weeks and 1 year every four weeks. I often put it to my students as ‘the little and often’ approach. Daily lowstakes testing, weekly reviews and cumulative testing is so important for helping students store information into longterm memory.
Past questions. Students need to practice different examination questions, over and over, well-spaced over time, rather than massed practice of the same problem type (and without looking at any notes). Also, the effect of exploring worked examples or exam answers, as well as writing their own, helps students process, practice and refine their revision to meet the parameters of exam success.
The reason many of the following techniques work so well is that they encourage learners to be active agents in their learning, They need to think hard about the information they are faced with. Learning that feels difficult embeds knowledge into memory better compared to learning that feels easy, which soon disappears–hence why we need to train students to avoid passive, superficial and time consuming techniques.
Preparing students for exams is never easy, and if we are going to teach students to be independent learners than we really do need to give some further thought into guiding students on how to revise, rather than simply telling them they should do this or focusing merely on subject content.
Costa Constantinou (BA, MA, PGCE)
Director of Educational Services
The Memory Game
Boosting Pupil Information Retrieval
Whether it be individual lessons, schemes of work or curriculums, it’s very easy to focus on what is being taught in a school. But how often do you stop to consider effective ways to ensure that students actually remember the content and are able to recall and utilise it at a later date? What strategies can be used to ensure that the teaching going on in their establishment really ‘sticks’ and in doing so, ensure long-term value to planning, quality and practice? Being aware and engaging in the science of learning and the research that surrounds it, means that practitioners not only concentrating on passing on knowledge, they’re taking steps to ensure that it isn’t lost after they do.
Here are some approaches that are well worth considering:
Distributed and interleaved teaching practice
Cramming (seemingly the panicked student’s favoured method) only goes so far and can lead to superficial learning and retention. Instead, exposing pupils to the same material multiple times and spacing out the period of recall over a few weeks or months can significantly improve memory retention. This method (known as distributed practice) allows pupils and teachers to reflect on what has already been learned and combine that knowledge with new information at a dramatic rate. Timing is important however as revisiting new material too quickly increases the likelihood of forgetting.
This can be especially effective when coupled with interleaved practice. This strategy mixes up material by having students practice a range of tasks and concepts in one session. It avoids completing tasks that requires them, in essence, to repeat the same skill as ‘massed practice’, which can lead to rote learning, something that research has recently shown to be superficial. Interleaving increases the range of skills and stretches knowledge, skills and ability.
How much of your teaching facilitates the use of distributed or interleaved practice? Do the classroom activities, homeworks and/or independent study tasks you set enable students to work in this way? Looking through SOWs and evaluating with your teams where this can be achieved, even going so far as to set out dates to repeat certain skills and information can help.
This could also be a good opportunity to develop further higher-order thinking tasks and approach the curriculum with a fresh perspective where skills are ‘scattered’ throughout the year rather than approached chronologically and moved on from, never to be highlighted again.
Enhancing retention through assessment
Assessment is always a hot topic in schools but it goes without saying that regularly assessing students and providing quality feedback improves learning and is useful for establishing where a student is in regards what they know and what they don’t (or indeed, what they can remember). Assessment forces the retrieval of information and keeps it alive in the memory and there are steps that can be taken to maximise the effect. Leaving behind memory aides such as notebooks and encouraging students to rely on their own memory to increase their capabilities. This coupled with immediate feedback makes assessment a powerful tool for retention but also ensures that possible misconceptions can be dealt with immediately.
When assessing avoid using memory aids such as keywords, images, sentence starters or writing frames. Enable learners to work independently and follow this with instant feedback and allow time for that feedback to be of high quality. Over the next term, try sharing useful assessment strategies and discuss what’s working especially in reference to retention.
The type of question that you ask can be extremely important. Probing questions and actions such as ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘compare’ and ‘contrast’ help students to think critically, solve questions, be analytical, make connections with previous learning, be information literate and be creative. Questions should not only provoke opinion or emotion (although there is nothing wrong with doing this as well). But they should also push students to retrieve and use both old and new material, exploring concepts and processing information in a deeper way.
Use learning walkthroughs that employ more challenging and deeper probing questioning but ensure all participating teachers fully understand the purpose of them before starting. During observation, monitor the nature of the questions, the level of challenge and the links made both within a particular subject discipline and/or cross-curricular links. Also crucial is that you’ve set up a platform for teacher feedback and use the findings to evaluate and improve classroom practice in this area.
Understanding and applying the above strategies has certainly improved my own classroom practice over the years, but much more importantly, it has improved the learning experiences of my students. It’s one thing knowing about such techniques but embedding them into schemes of work and in the delivery of lessons requires thought, not just as an individual, but for time allocated to working collaboratively with colleagues. Evaluating how you are incorporating practice in reference to improving memory retention in your students, using theories from both science and pedagogy in your own teaching and planning as well as facilitating discussions with others can all lead to an improvement in pupil retention skills school-wide.
It’s worth remembering.
Costa Constantinou (BA, MA, PGCE)
Director of Educational Services
To help your students increase information retention and become mastery learners check out our related Student Masterclasses Kick Start Study Skills (KS3) and Revise to Maximise (KS4–5) as well as our specially developed Revision Techniques student assembly.
Please contact-us if you would like to find out more information.