Saturday, 23 November 2013

Why don’t they ever blooming remember things?

Disclaimer: my knowledge and experience of neuroscience amounts to seeing a pickled brain in a classroom once and knowing the definition of the word.

Over the last few months, I have read numerous blogs about the inner workings of the mind and browsed several articles on how knowledge is more important than skills. From all of these I am coming to some of my own conclusions about memory and more importantly learning.

We all suffer with the same experience in the classroom. You ask a child about what happened in the last lesson and what nugget of gold they learnt through the meticulously planned lesson you tailor-made for their enjoyment. They look at you stunned. You probably haven’t given them enough thinking time, so you give them so more thinking time. And some more. And a bit more. A tumbleweed rolls across the classroom and in the distance you can hear a solitary bell ringing. You try to prompt them with words, gestures and semaphore signals. Nothing. Zilch. Not a glimmer. Why? They have forgotten it. The fantastic lesson where even the angels and archangels in Heaven were singing by the time the plenary arrived and they, the students, can’t remember it the following day, week or, not surprisingly, month.

The problem is short-term memory. The drive and thrust of our education system is on short-term memory. Everything we do feeds into the short-term memory. Our assessments. Our teaching. Our approaches. Our ideas of teaching too feed into this. A student’s memory is like a small purse. They pick up some coins (unofficial term: learning units) in period one and then in the next two lessons they pick up some more coins of a different currency (stay with me with this comparison).  By the afternoon, the students have a purse full.  After lunchtime, the student then tries to fit in a few more coins. However, there is no room, so something has got to go. They can slip in two more coins but only if they ditch the two pound coins that the English teacher worked so hard to give the student at the start of the day. Then, it all starts all over again the following day. More coins are added and the older ones go.

We are constantly trying to fit £100 in a purse that will only fit £50. Short-term memory has its uses. It is great, but it is not as good as long-term memory. We all want to commit the knowledge and skills we teach to permanent memory, yet we commit it to temporary memory or the short-term memory. That’s why I get fed up with students forgetting a book we studied last term. The majority of the lessons I taught were geared to temporary retention rather than permanent retention of information.  Yes, but you are teaching the skills and that is more important than knowing the book. The recursive nature of English means you will repeat skills but not the text.

I am starting to think that the unitary structure of our curriculum feeds into this obsession with short-term memory. We teach topics and assess the topics at the end of the unit. This structure, I think, supports temporary memory. Students after the assessment can dump all that knowledge because they have completed the assessment. What happens afterwards? Do they use it again? Is it referred to? Often, and I am talking about my teaching here, you refer to it in another topic, but the learning isn’t repeated again. It is assumed that it has moved over to permanent memory, because an assessment has been done. More than likely it hasn’t because the purse could only take so much.

Take Year 11: the year of constant cramming and rushing to cover the course.   We all panic because they have forgotten something or their knowledge of a topic is weak, so we employ their short-term memory again to plug the gaps. We all do it. I do it. Surely, most of Year 11 should be about developing the long-term memory in preparation for exams and life? Yet, the curriculum is jam packed with so much that it means short-term memory is employed because there isn’t enough time for developing long-term memory. This Mr Gove could have fixed by slimming down the curriculum and focusing on less and concentrating on quality. The current system (thanks Dickens) sees students as empty vessels to fill with facts, facts and more facts. Sadly, our students are small pots and can only take so much. Better to teach a few things properly than lots of things ineffectively.

So, how do we develop the long-term memory? I can’t find the blog here, but there is a brilliant one about repetition and using repetition in the classroom. Repetition is one way of achieving things. At the moment, I am employing some of these techniques in my classroom. One thing I hate is whistling, but another is the student who asks me: ‘What exam is this one?’. I endlessly tell students the details of the exams. Before, I used to think it was laziness on their part, but now I realise that they are not committing the most basic (and vital) of information to permanent / long-term memory. Therefore, I have been teaching them in a very repetitive manner the basics of the exam. Weeks later when I test them, they can recall all the information.

Fundamentally, I think we need to look at the structure of our curriculum. My department is currently looking at how we teach the novel to students. Each year we teach a novel, or more, depending on the circumstances. The novel usually takes a term to teach and we assess students through an essay based task. We questioned if this structure really helped them to ‘learn a novel’. Our conclusion was negative. They often forgot key things and knowledge wasn’t always carried over. Look at GCSE and we expect students to ‘learn a novel’ and we constantly refer to it across the course. Their learning is mixed with other things, but their long-term memory is developed as a result of this method.  So, we are changing how we teach the novel in Years 7 -9. Instead of narrowing it down to one term, we are spreading the teaching of the novel over the year. Each year group will have a novel. Interestingly, Year 8 will have ‘Great Expectations ’. Over the year, the teacher will teach the novel and at the end of the year they will have a large assessment. The hope is that their memory will be pushed to hold a story and key things over the year and instil things to their long-term memory. Time will tell, but that is the thing with short-term memory: it is quick and simple, but long-term memory takes time.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. Emotional memory is very important to transferring information from short-term to long-term memory. Students always remember the time when John farted in a lesson, because it was ‘so’ funny. That’s why I think humour is so important in the learning process. Failing that, you could always use clips from scary films. Show a clip from ‘Carrie’ after teaching students something and the scare they had will help transfer information from short-term to long-term memory. The emotional experience they had will help commit the information to long-term memory. Warning: I don’t advocate the showing of horror films. Instead, use bad pop videos from the 80s. Far more scary.  


  1. Ok. Short term or working memory will only retain information for a couple of minutes at best. We can use a refresh loop, repeating a phone number, to keep the number fresh but it goes soon after we stop the refresh loop.

    We need to get the important stuff that they need to remember into long term memory. This is done using a number of techniques. The two most effective are repetition and meaning. Repeating is obvious. Making meaning is a little more involved.

    Dan Willingham says that memory is the residue of thought. Daisy Christodolou identifies that these residues build up as we think more and more often about that which matters. What kind of thinking is best? Thinking where the learner asks themselves questions such as 'What does this thing mean?', 'How do I know this is true?', 'What else does this link to?' etc.

    The use of fun is very debatable. One will remember the farting but not always the learning that was occurring when the fart was let go. The emotional link will be when the meaning of the knowledge has an emotional resonance for the learner. Perhaps this is as simple as being something we really want to know.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Peter. I like the idea of memory being the residue of thought. Engaging with a concept allows for understanding, but does it effectively help to transfer ideas from short-term to long-term memory? I think engagement works to develop some memories, but I don't think it works so well for the storing of ideas. You have to understand a concept to store it, but is there another part of the process we are missing?

    I read lots of books, yet I cannot recall the names of the characters when I am reading a book. I understand the story and patterns in the texts. I have read the story fully and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yet, ask me to recall the names of the characters and I struggle. I understand it. I have repeated the process, yet I haven't committed to memory the names. I have engaged but I cannot recall the names.

    Apply this to the classroom and you see it in the scattergun approach to what students learn. Review a unit of work with students it is amazing to see what they have picked up and what they haven't. Usually, they pick out the most surprising of things. Things that you, as a teacher, did not put any emphasis or repetition on. Now the students might have been in the right frame of mind at the time and things just worked, or is there something else that essentially helps students to commit things to long-term memory.

    You are right about the fart thing. They will just remember the fart. But, maybe the fart is remembered because it breaks the cycle of learning. It changes the routine and therefore it is remembered. Do this again support the idea that the structures we have can hinder how students convert things to long-term memory?

    Thanks for making me think some more, Peter.

  3. Thoughtful post, and funny, too. Double reading pleasure! I wonder what role cross curricular learning plays here. I was teaching Wilfred Gibson's 'The Conscript' the other day to year 10s in which doctors are giving conscripts their medical examinations, knowing full well they are probably going to their deaths. I asked the class if they knew what the Hippocratic Oath was and didn't expect them to, but most had done it in History and were very, very keen to tell me what they knew. There was a tangible excitement in the class about this transfer of learning. I didn't need to point out its relevance to the poem. I am sure they are going to remember this when it comes to writing their controlled assessment. And I guess it may even contribute to their History work, too. Perhaps there should be more focus on 'whole-school' learning - finding areas of cross-over and consciously reinforcing them. Anyway, thanks for the post.

  4. Thanks for that Fran. Maybe it is going 'against the grain' that produces long-term memory. Something different. Something unorthodox. Teach an aspect in a different classroom and the students will remember. Or maybe it is about joining up segments of memory together. Making connections or unblocking synapses.

    One method of memorising things is to associate place with something you are learning. Move through a house and you can make a connection to a different thing in each room. Therefore, the memory is attached to an existing one.

    Do we need to work on attaching new memories to established old ones?

    Interesting thoughts.

    Thanks, Fran ; )

  5. (Just an aside here, Chris. Have kept a diary since 1972 and am currently rereading my 1983 diary, just for interest! 30 years ago I was in my fourth year of teaching, my first school, but newly promoted to a pastoral role.

    I'm finding it absolutely fascinating, and quite mystifying, as to what I can/can't remember from that time. Some things which seemed patently trivial have stuck. Other things which I would have expected to remember have gone. In November 1983 I had a bad back, which required me to go to the doctor who prescribed pain killers. I was struggling in school (interestingly didn't take any time off!) and when teaching my sixth form taught one lesson flat on my back with my shoes off. When it got to the end of the lesson I discovered they'd thrown one of my shoes out of the window....

    I was amused rather than cross, but find it odd that I have no memory of this at all. Reading it in my diary it's as if it happened to someone else.

    Sorry this doesn't help with your deliberations at all, but I've been thinking about this recently so just thought I'd share....)


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