Ten top tips for stimulating sensory memory

The process of learning is the interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory.

Our sensory memory is made up of: what we see – this is called our iconic memory; what we hear – this is called our echoic memory; and what we touch – our haptic memory.

Our long-term memory is where new information is stored and from which it can be recalled when needed, but we cannot directly access the information stored in our long-term memory – instead, this interaction between our sensory memory and our long-term memory occurs in the working memory.

In order to ensure our pupils learn, therefore, we need to stimulate their sensory memory, gain the attention of – and help them cheat – their working memory, and improve the strength with which information is stored in, and the ease and efficiency with which it can later be retrieved from, their long-term memory. In order to do this, we need to follow these three steps:

First, we need to create a positive learning environment.

Second, we need to make pupils think hard but efficiently.

And third, we need to plan for deliberate practice.

Here are my top ten tips for creating a positive learning environment which will stimulate pupils’ sensory memories:

1. Comfortable with discomfort

Attend to the classroom culture.

Create an ethos – delivered through words and actions – in which pupils feel welcomed, valued, enthusiastic about learning, engaged in their learning, eager to experiment, and rewarded for their hard work.

We do this by: greeting pupils at the door and using their names; encouraging everyone to contribute and explicitly teaching speaking and listening skills; modelling enthusiasm by being excited about teaching, ignoring anyone who advises ‘don’t smile till Christmas’ – even if this means we have to put on a act some days; plan lessons on the premise of what pupils will think about rather than do – perhaps by framing lessons around a big question or hypothesis; model a growth mindset ethos in which mistakes are positively welcomed and everyone gets better at everything with hard work and practice.

2. Mistakes and risk-takes

Promote risk-taking and mistake-making.

Create a classroom in which taking risks and making mistakes is the default position and in which drafting and redrafting, improving work in response to feedback, is the norm. Provide opportunities for pupils to respond to feedback in the lesson in order to signal its importance and enable the teacher to recognise and celebrate progress.

Feedback should answer three fundamental questions: Where are pupils going? (This is about their goals and is ‘feed up’); how are pupils going to get there? (This is ‘feed back’); and where to next? (This is ‘feed forward’). Feedback should operate on four levels: 1. Task level – how well tasks are understood and performed; 2. Process level – the process needed to understand and perform tasks; 3. Self-regulation level – self-monitoring and regulating of actions; and 4. Self level – personal evaluations by the pupil.

3. Damn with praise

Reward hard work and effort.

Reward pupils’ hard work as opposed to attainment because to do so creates a level playing field on which every pupil has equal chance of being recognised for the progress they have made from their individual starting points. Praise pupils for their ‘growth-oriented processes’ – what they accomplish through practice and persistence, not what they achieve through innate, inherited ‘talent’. Avoid giving praise for the sake of it or praising pupils for doing no more than what’s expected or for completing work below their ‘struggle zone’ (which is too easy and can be accomplished through habit) for this will demotivate them in the longer term.

4. Intrinsic motivation

Foster a sense of intrinsic motivation whereby pupils feel rewarded by the inherent satisfaction of completing a task and doing well, not by external awards

Intrinsic motivation is founded on pupils’ autonomy (the desire to take control of their own learning), mastery (the urge to get better and better), and purpose (a yearning to do what they do in the service of a wider goal). Intrinsic motivation is the want to learn but it is contingent on pupils also developing the need to learn: pupils need to know why they’re learning what they’re learning and how that learning fits in to the bigger picture – why it matters and how and when they’ll use it. Talking of which…

5. In the beginning

Articulate specific learning outcomes and task instructions.

Decide on a key take-away message for each lesson, the ‘lead’, which might be a big question that begs an answer or a hypothesis that demands to be proven or disproven. Use this to frame your learning outcomes so that pupils know what they’re learning and why. Then share the success criteria and model excellence. Success criteria must be shared before a task is begun so pupils know how they will be assessed and what they are striving to achieve. These criteria should also be specific and match the objectives. Ideally, pupils should be involved in agreeing the criteria, too.

Once the success criteria have been agreed and shared, model what a perfect final product looks like (by, say, sharing a top mark essay) and deconstruct it to show pupils each of its constituent parts so that they can emulate it. Next, model a final product that’s somewhat less than the best so that pupils can learn which pitfalls to avoid. Sharing learning outcomes and success criteria, then modelling excellence, will direct pupils’ attentions to what they need to think about.

6. The open loop

Create an open loop whereby practice leads to formative feedback which leads to yet more practice.

Promote a culture in which drafting and redrafting in response to feedback is considered the norm. Ensure that feedback leads to improvements and to further practice, which in turn should lead to more feedback and so on. Practice should involve: spaced repetition – whereby information is returned to for recap or reteaching but with increasingly long gaps so that pupils get to the point of almost forgetting it and retrieving it is hard; retrieval practice – whereby daily recaps, weekly quizzes and topic tests are used not for the purposes of assessment but for reinforcement and to provide pupils with feedback information on what they know and do not know (yet) and therefore need to practice; interleaved practice – whereby pupils are tested on information from different topics so that they are forced to make new connections between study material and improve their ability to transfer learning; and cognitive disfluency (sometimes called cognitive dissonance) – whereby pupils’ initial learning of information (or encoding) is slowed down and made more difficult than it needs to be in order to improve its subsequent storage and retrieval strength.

7. Make it real

Develop pupils’ study skills.

Establish routines whereby pupils regularly: self-quiz – testing themselves on study notes; elaborate – relate new information to what they already know, explaining it to somebody else; generate – attempt to answer questions before being taught the answers; reflect – review their learning and how effectively they learnt; and calibrate – remove the illusion of knowing something by answering every question even if they think it’s too easy and they know the answer.

8. Sense and sensibility

Make ideas stick by grounding them in a sensory reality.

Make ideas tangible – for example, through the use of analogy and metaphor to draw connections between new information and prior learning or to place new ideas into a useful context.

Make ideas real – for example, make abstract concepts concrete, show rather than tell, and appeal to pupils’ emotions in order to make them feel and, therefore, make them care.

9. Sound and vision

Dual code information by combining verbal instructions with visual ones.

Combine verbal instructions (whether written down or spoken) with visuals such as graphics and charts so that pupils can utilise the verbal and visual processing powers contained in working memory, thus increasing their capacity to handle information.

Images – diagrams, graphs, infographics and so on, rather than just pictures used for illustrative purposes – get coded twice, first visually then verbally, and therefore leave double the amount of traces in long-term memory.

10. Free transfer

Improve pupils’ ability to transfer their learning.

Help pupils to connect what they learn in one topic to what they learn in another, and indeed to other situations in life, and help them connect their learning from one context to another context. We can this by: ensuring pupils are afforded a sufficient amount of time to explore the underlying concepts and ideas in a topic; teaching less curriculum content but in greater depth; giving pupils information in a variety of contexts; and teaching metacognition so that pupils can become more aware of themselves as learners and develop the ability to actively monitor their learning strategies and assess their readiness for particular activities and assessments.


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This is an edited extract from the book How to Learn which is available in paperback and ebook formats.  For more, click here.


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