Supporting knowledge retention and recall


Tonight’s 15 minute forum was led by history teacher, Jack Tyler – focusing on how we can support knowledge retention and recall.

The problem

Jack started the session by outlining the problem that he was encountering as a teacher.  For too long, history teaching had been focusing on the skills that students needed to succeed e.g. essay structure, analysis of sources, using connectives etc.  However, in doing so, they had lost sight of the importance of knowledge.  Knowledge is a prerequisite for everything and there is no point in trying to get students to write a historical essay, if they don’t know the knowledge to include.

Furthermore, Jack was looking for a coherent revision strategy, similar to the one used by geography (see here).   Students were experiencing a lack of clarity in terms of what they had to know – as there was so much content to work through.

The Solution

Jack came up with the idea of trigger words.  He would pick 5 key words to summarise each lesson (and so avoid cognitive overload).  So for example, a lesson on the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian immigrants who were executed in the USA in 1927, would be summarised by these 5 trigger words.  These aren’t necessary key words, but words that will trigger the memory of a key point:






These 5 words were easy for students to remember, and so made the key pieces of knowledge they need easier to recall.  They then act as a trigger for other events, that students can then start to link together and build up into a mind map, like the one below;


Students are given a booklet that contains the 5 trigger words for each lesson in a topic – so about 35 in total.  For homework, they then need to use the trigger words to produce a detailed mind map – with as many different links as possible.  Some examples follow:



During the next lesson, they can then discuss the trigger words and how they developed them into the mind map – including any particular difficulties they had.  They can then use this to help them structure a piece of extended writing on the topic.

To help students remember the 5 words, they are often linked to a series of pictures – see an example below:


By remembering the picture, this helps students to recall the 5 trigger words.

Why has it been useful?

  • It’s an easy structure to use for revision sessions, that students then get used to.
  • It also gives them a framework, to help structure their own revision at home.
  • Rather than just setting as homework ‘revise’ this gives students productive to do.  You can then go through any misconceptions at the start of the next lesson.

How else can we support knowledge retention and recall?

Alongside trigger words, Jack has also been using ‘knowledge organisers’ to support recall.


As can be seen from the example above, this is simply a list of key dates, people and terminology, that students need to know in order to be successful.  Students are asked to learn this at home and are then tested on them the next lesson.


This regular, low-stakes testing is an excellent way of remembering things – by making students think about things and retrieve them from their memory, they are more likely to remember them.  In the words of Daniel Willingham:

willingham quote








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2 Responses to Supporting knowledge retention and recall

  1. Pingback: Supporting knowledge retention and recall | petersugden

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