Bright Spots – Memory

Over the past few days I have been visiting lessons attempting to uncover good practice in the field of memory creation and retention.  At Durrington we have made the use of memory strategies gleaned from cognitive science one of our three teaching and learning priorities for this academic year.  This has involved devoting substantial INSET time at the start of the year to helping staff understand the strategies (Andy Tharby recently wrote an excellent blog that you find here, debunking many of the myths around memory), and then more recently having subject areas feedback on how they are implementing the strategies.  Below are some of the bright spots I found on my travels.


Retrieval practice

Science teacher Josh Beckwith had started his lesson with a series of retrieval practice questions and was at the stage of feeding back the answers to his students.  The questions began as closed questions and then became more open as students moved through the quiz.  In line with best practice students were not looking back in their books for the answers and completing the quiz purely from memory on pieces of paper handed out at the start.  The feedback from Josh was immediate, ensuring misconceptions from wrong answers were not embedded.  He also deepened understanding through some elaboration questions and explanation.

Beth Clarke was also starting a lesson with some retrieval practice.  This time it was being done through verbal questioning.  She was asking the students about the Medieval punishments they had studied in the previous lesson.  She then developed their answers through elaboration questions.  This was partly done out of necessity as it was a class she shared with another teacher and she wanted to judge their knowledge and understanding in order to inform the content of her lesson.  More generally, the history department have recently been discussing how to incorporate knowledge from previous key stage three lessons into their lessons.


In music, NQT Cyrus Dean was using mnemonics to help students remember the notes of the treble clef.  Using one of the classic aide memoirs of the music teacher, he was converting the seemingly abstract and unrelated sequences of notes into something more memorable.  These were Every Good Boy Deserves Food and FACE.  This is a method of supporting memory creation that has been used for years in schools, often we teach ideas and concepts that are abstract, and need to find techniques like mnemonics to make them memorable.  This both helps students remember the detail but also helps them understand the concept by connecting it to something tangible.

Tethering to existing knowledge

Another technique to aid the creation and retention of memory is to tether new knowledge to existing knowledge.  The example here would be when first describing a Pomelo fruit to someone it would be better to say: “It is like a large grapefruit but with green skin and pink flesh”, rather than:  “It is 30cm in circumference, green and weighs about 100 grams.”


Head of modern foreign languages Pam Graham demonstrated this strategy while teaching year 8 students how to use the verb “porter” in French.  Languages in particular have to tether new knowledge to what students already know as new languages can seem so far removed from students pre-existing knowledge.  Pam achieved this by explaining in English how the equivalent verb would work and further explained how this would be received and why it would be used in that way.  This gave context to her subsequent explanation of the French and allowed students to understand why the verb was used in a particular manner.

In art Ray Burns was also connecting new knowledge to pre-existing knowledge.  He was modelling how to replicate a picture by a particular artist.  As he was explaining the different techniques that the students would need to use in order to create a similar picture, he explained them in terms of what they had done previously.  By breaking down what was a complicated picture into its composite parts in this way, and tethering each part to something the students already understood, the task became less intimidating and allowed the students to see how they could be successful.

Worked examples

English teacher Kelly Heane demonstrated this technique when teaching year 9 students different techniques to use for creative writing.  She had a series of different methods to communicate including zoom in/zoom out and flash forward.  Each was a fairly abstract concept in isolation so Kelly had a worked example lined-up to explain each one.  Kelly had pre-written a version of each technique and shared it with the class, unpicking it as she went.  This techniques works by taking the place of the students’ working memory as they attempt to remember all the different elements needed to make the finished product successful.  Creative writing is difficult and contains many different facets, by having a worked example to refer to students do not have to remember so many different facets at the same time and therefore can be more successful as they attempt to create their own versions.

Worked examples are particularly successful in maths and this was shown by teacher John Mulhern.  He was teaching students about how they could judge whether something was fair.  Fair is a tricky tier 2 word and means something very different in maths to most other contexts in which students will encounter it.  To mitigate that John had produced several worked examples to demonstrate the practical application of the concept.  Only after two of these examples did students attempt their own versions.

Posted by Chris Runeckles

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