The learning process: Part 10

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in November 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This is the final instalment in a 10-part series.  Catch up with the series so far. 

I started this 10-part series by asking the ostensibly simple question, what is learning? It’s only ostensibly simple because it isn’t as easy to answer as we might at first assume.

Learning, after all, is multifaceted. Some forms of learning, like learning to ride a bike for instance, are immediate and observable but other types of learning are neither of these things. The immediate demonstration of knowledge or skill could be mere performance, mimicry rather than mastery, a poor proxy for learning.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with mimicry if it helps a pupil pass a test and get a qualification, but assuming we want to do more than “teach to the test” and assuming we regard education as something meaningful and life-long, a way of becoming an engaged and active citizen, and an inquisitive, cultured adult, then surely we must aim to move beyond mimicry and towards mastery?

We must, therefore, teach in such a way as to ensure our pupils not only acquire new knowledge and skills but can apply those knowledge and skills at a later time and in a range of different contexts.

With this in mind, the definition of “learning” I shared at the start of this series was as follows: learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skills, and their application at a later time and in a range of contexts.

Having settled on this definition, I then set out to articulate the process by which learning occurs. It is, I argued, an interaction that takes place between our sensory memory (sometimes referred to as our “environment”) and our long-term memory.

Our sensory memory is made up of: what we see (our iconic memory), what we hear (our echoic memory), and what we touch (our haptic memory). Our long-term memory is where information is stored and from which it can later be recalled when needed, but we cannot directly access the information stored in our long-term memory.

As such, this interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory, which is at the heart of learning, occurs in our working memory – the only place where we can think and do.

In order to improve this process so that our pupils are afforded the best opportunity to learn, I suggested we take the following three steps:

  1. Create a positive learning environment in order to stimulate sensory memory.
  2. Make pupils think hard but efficiently in order to gain the attention of – but cheat – working memory.
  3. Plan for deliberate practice in order to improve storage in, and retrieval from, long-term memory.

In terms of the first step, a positive learning environment, I said, is one in which all pupils:

  • Feel welcomed.
  • Feel valued.
  • Are enthusiastic about learning.
  • Are engaged in their learning.
  • Are eager to experiment.
  • Feel rewarded for their hard work.

But it is also one in which our pupils’ iconic, echoic and haptic memories are stimulated (the first step) – by making ideas tangible, clear, satisfying, and concrete.

Pupils’ senses are also stimulated through the use of dual coding which helps utilise both verbal and visual processing in working memory.

In terms of the second step, making pupils think hard means giving them work to do that’s challenging but achievable, because if the work’s too easy, pupils will complete it through habit, and if the work’s too hard, pupils will be unable to complete it. In both cases, learning will fail. Work should be pitched in pupils’ “struggle zones” (what they can do with time, effort and support). We do this, in part, by creating desirable difficulties, by slowing learning down and making it harder to encode information initially so that it’s easier to retrieve it later.

Once pupils are thinking hard, we need to help them to think efficiently in order to cheat the limited space in working memory. And this means “chunking” information, teaching in a logical sequence, over-teaching routines so they become automatic and require very little space in working memory, using analogy and metaphor to connect new learning to what pupils already know and understand, and removing all irrelevant, extraneous information so that pupils focus only on the information that matters.

In terms of the third and final step, once we have created a positive learning environment and stimulated pupils’ senses in order to gain the attention of their working memories, and then made pupils think hard but efficiently, we need to help pupils reduce the likelihood of forgetting that information, and increase its storage strength in long term memory so that pupils can access that information at a later stage. We also need to improve the retrieval strength of that information so that pupils can recall it with ease and efficiency when needed.

In short, therefore, we need to help pupils practice what we’ve taught them and the art of effective practice is that, each time a pupil revisits prior learning, it must be as hard as it was the first time they learnt it.

The best forms of deliberate practice are spacing and interleaving, and the best study skills to teach pupils are: practice quizzing, elaborative interrogation and self-explanation, generation, reflection, and calibration.

To conclude this series, I’d like to set out a useful classroom routine that helps bring many of these ideas together: the use of graphic organisers, daily free-call and recall, weekly quizzes and end-of-topic tests.

Graphic organisers

Graphic organisers can help to focus pupils’ attentions on the key concepts and vocabulary they need to learn.

Visual representations of information are by no means new – the use of graphs and charts to represent statistical information and time-lines showing a sequence of historical events have long been accepted teaching and learning tools, and graphic organisers in the form of mind-maps are common aides to brainstorming what pupils know about a topic.

However, the realisation that pupils can cheat their limited working memories by accessing both verbal and visual processes at once, and the increasing recognition of the importance of retrieval practice, has meant that graphic organisers have become more commonplace.

Graphic organisers are usually one side of A3. Sometimes they are given to pupils pre-populated, at other times – especially when used for retrieval purposes – they are given with blank spaces for pupils to complete. Often, the information contained in a graphic organiser could just as easily be written as a list, but the organiser offers certain advantages:

  • Graphic organisers provide pupils with a different way of seeing and thinking about information.
  • Graphic organisers help to remove language barriers so that pupils can focus on connections between information.
  • The visual nature of graphic organisers helps convey complex information in a simple-to-understand manner because they show (rather than tell) pupils how information is structured and this facilitates their deeper understanding.
  • Graphic organisers help develop pupils’ analytical, critical and creative thinking skills because, to create an organiser, pupils have to identify relationships between items, examine the meanings attached to them, and prioritise information in order to decide where each item should be placed on the page.
  • Graphic organisers enable a lot of information to be converted into a structured, easy-to-read, visual display. This helps to provide the “big picture” of a topic.
  • Changes can easily be made to allow pupils to take different perspectives and clarify their thoughts. Organisers are easy to edit, revise, and add to.
  • Creating an organiser of their own helps pupils to generate ideas and see the possibilities associated with a topic as the visual grows.

A 2003 review study by the Institute for the Advancement of Research in Education at AEL concluded that using graphic organisers improves pupil performance in the following areas:

  • Retention – pupils retained information better and could more easily recall it when it was represented and learned both visually and verbally.
  • Reading comprehension – the use of graphic organisers helped improve pupils’ reading comprehension.
  • Pupil achievement – pupils with and without learning difficulties and disabilities were found to improve their grades when using graphic organisers.
  • Thinking and learning skills, and critical thinking – when pupils developed and used their own graphic organisers, their higher order thinking and critical thinking skills were judged to be enhanced.

Crucially for our purposes, the content of graphic organisers can be used to frame practice quizzes. Indeed, it is good practice to only test pupils on the content of the graphic organiser for that topic. In this sense, graphic organisers can become the “bible” of curriculum content – the only source of information we need our pupils to pay attention to and learn, thus removing extraneous and irrelevant information and focusing pupils’ attentions on what we need them to think about.

Graphic organisers are also useful planning tools for the teacher – they help us to focus on the curriculum content that’s most important for pupils to learn and therefore they help us to keep the main thing the main thing in our lessons.

Daily free-call

Once we have created our graphic organisers for a given topic, a useful revision technique to teach pupils is to get them to engage in a daily “free recall” (or free-call) activity. This requires you to develop a routine whereby pupils spend 10 minutes at the end of every lesson filling a blank piece of paper with everything they can remember from that lesson.

This helps pupils to recall from long-term memory what they’ve just been taught, thus beginning the process of retrieval immediately, and it helps to make explicit what information they have taken on-board and encoded. The result can then be used to help pupils revise for the following lesson which we could start with a short recap quiz.

The idea of free-call can be extended into a weekly homework whereby pupils create summary sheets for the previous week’s learning. These could be annotated notes, perhaps with diagrams. The purpose of this task is to stimulate retrieval and reflection and to capture the previous week’s learning before it is lost.

Daily or weekly practice quizzes

Every lesson could start with a short, low-stakes or no-stakes practice quiz which requires pupils to retrieve from long-term memory the information they encoded the previous lesson. In other words, the quiz could test them on what they successfully remember from the previous day – and, just as usefully – highlight what they have forgotten. These quizzes could make use of spacing and interleaving, too, if questions are from mixed topics and some questions are returned to after a suitable period of time has elapsed. The daily recap quizzes could be weekly if this is more feasible but should test pupils on the information they were taught in every lesson that week.

Topic tests

At the end of each topic, the questions from the low-stakes quizzes – which in turn are taken from the graphic organiser for that topic – could be combined to create a more formal end-of-topic test.

This test could serve two purposes: first, it could highlight to pupils what they have and have not remembered, thus focusing their attention on what needs to be practised some more (while also engaging them in another round of retrieval practice).

Second, it could provide the teacher with crucial assessment data to inform future planning. For example, it could highlight for them which aspects of the topic were not as well taught as others and which aspects may need recapping or completely reteaching. It can also highlight pupils’ common misconceptions.


And that brings us to the end of our learning journey. We have explored ways of creating a positive learning environment in order to stimulate sensory memory, of making pupils think hard but efficiently in order to gain the attention of, but cheat, working memory, and of planning for deliberate practice in order to improve storage in, and retrieval from, long-term memory.

By so doing, we should help ensure our pupils not only acquire new knowledge and skills but can also apply those knowledge and skills at a later time and in a range of different contexts. And, thus, we can truly say that we haven’t just taught, but that our pupils have also learnt.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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