Ten top tips for improving storage in, and retrieval from, long-term 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 – 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 a pupil learns, 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, I explored ways of stimulating sensory memory. Then, here, I examined how to gain the attention of working memory.

Now, let us turn our attention to the subject of deliberate practice…

I’d like to share my top ten tips for embedding opportunities for pupils to engage in deliberate practice in order to improve the storage and retrieval strength of the information they have encoded into long-term memory:

1. Repeat, repeat, repeat

Repeat learning at least three times.

Once we’ve taught something for the first time and that information has been encoded into pupils’ long-term memories, we need to plan opportunities for pupils to repeat that learning over and over. The more pupils repeat their prior learning, the stronger the storage of that information becomes and the more efficient they become at retrieving that information from long-term memory and returning it to their working memory in order to use it. Every piece of knowledge and every skill is improved and perfected by performing it repeatedly because repetition hones neural circuitry. And yet not all forms of practice are equal… we best improve storage and retrieval strength when we engage in deliberate practice. Talking of which…

2. Deliberately difficult

Make pupils struggle in targeted ways.

We need to plan for deliberate practice by making pupils struggle in certain targeted ways, slowing their initial learning down so that pupils stop and stumble, and crucially have to think harder, in order to make sense of something. Moreover, we need to ensure that practice is targeted and mistake-focused – in other words, that it responds to feedback and seeks to close the gaps in pupils’ knowledge. Slowing learning down and ensuring pupils struggle helps to pitch learning in the ‘sweet spot’ between what pupils can do and what pupils are trying to do.

3. Lost in space

Space practice sessions out.

Leave increasingly long gaps before returning to a topic so that pupils get to the point of almost forgetting what they’d previously learnt and have to – once again – think hard about that information in order to retrieve it from their long-term memories.

4. Mix tape

Interleave practice topics.

Focus on each topic for a shorter period of time but return to it more often in-between studying other topics. This is the opposite of cramming, or blocked practice, and has been proven to be more effective in terms of long-term information-retention. As well as improving the storage and retrieval strength of information from each topic, interleaving helps pupils to forge new connections between topics and therefore improve their ability to transfer their learning from one context to another.

5. Multiplicity

Repeat learning in multiple contexts.

Each time we return to recap, reteach or test pupils on their prior learning, we should do something different with the information, make new connections, and require pupils to demonstrate their learning in different ways.

In the classroom, this means that every time you return to prior learning, you should get pupils to do different things with it, not just repeat it verbatim. For example, pupils could test themselves, test each other, devise quizzes, give presentations to the class, teach each other, write an essay, draw a diagram, create a graphic organiser, and so on. Talking of which…

6. Testing times

Set practice tests to boost learning.

The use of practice tests or short, perhaps multiple-choice, quizzes can improve pupils’ learning in both direct and indirect ways. Unlike simply re-reading study notes, when pupils are tested (or test themselves) and correctly retrieve an answer from their long-term memories, that memory is further improved. But practice tests also help when pupils fail to retrieve a correct answer. Such a failure signals that the answer needs to be revisited, re-studied perhaps. This helps pupils make decisions about what to dedicate most of their time practising.

7. Note to self

Explicitly teach pupils how to take good study notes.

Pupils’ notes should be the result of analysis, evaluation and synthesis; they should provide a thoughtful summarisation of the key points rather than be verbatim transcriptions of what the teacher has said. Note-taking can help pupils develop critical thinking skills and help them prepare for practice tests. Perhaps pupils’ notes could consist of flashcards or blank spaces on which to test themselves later. Whilst pupils are taking notes, they should periodically pause to ask themselves questions such as: What are the key ideas here? What terms are new to me and what do they mean? How do the ideas here relate to what I already know?

8. To thine own self be true

Encourage pupils to test themselves on prior learning.

Self-quizzing – like practice tests in class – is about retrieving knowledge and skills from memory and is far more effective than simply re-reading one’s study notes.

Along the way, pupils should also be encouraged to elaborate – which is to say, they should find additional layers of meaning in new materials, relate new material to what they already know, explain new material to other pupils, and explain how new material relates to the wider world and to their own experiences. Pupils should also be encouraged to reflect on what they’ve learnt and then adjust their judgment to reflect the reality – in other words, they should actively answer every question and re-cap on every idea even if they think they know the answers. Sometimes, pupils can assume they know something when, in reality, they don’t or they did but have forgotten it. By answering every question – writing down the answers or saying them out loud – pupils will remove this dangerous illusion of knowing.

9. Total recall

Plan for daily free recall.

Develop a routine whereby pupils spend ten minutes at the end of every lesson filling a blank piece of paper with everything they can remember from that lesson. Start the next lesson with a recap quiz. Set 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.

10. Get organised…graphically

Use graphic organisers to capture key learning and frame revision.

Graphic organisers – also called knowledge organisers – can help to focus pupils’ attentions on the key concepts and vocabulary they need to learn. The content of these organisers could be used to frame the daily recaps and weekly quizzes, as well as the end-of-topic tests. Indeed, it is good practice to only test pupils on the contents of the graphic organiser for that topic. Graphic organisers are also useful planning tools for the teacher – they help the teacher focus on the curriculum content that’s most important for pupils to learn and therefore help to remove erroneous or irrelevant details. Graphic organisers can also be used to help make learning objectives and success criteria more specific and focused.


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