We’ve all been there. Weeks of carefully planned lessons, and at the end of the unit, the students take the test, and the results are disappointing. How can that be? How is it possible that the students didn’t learn the content after all that teaching? It’s simple, really: They didn’t transfer their learning to long-term memory.
Thanks to advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, we now know a lot about how memory works. Here are the basics: First, we engage different types of memory depending on the task. Second, being able to retrieve information stored in long-term memory is an essential part of learning. Third, forgetting is a natural process. Our brains regularly sort through information when we sleep (and while we’re awake) to determine what’s important to save and what isn’t.
When it comes to instruction, it’s helpful for teachers to understand the different types of memory, when and how to engage them, and how to instruct students in such a way that they can move new information from their working memory to long-term memory.
The Types of Memory Involved in Learning
The first type of memory engaged when learning is our short-term or working memory. Working memory is temporary storage with limited capacity. Generally speaking, the younger the student, the smaller the capacity. Children who are the same age can have widely varying capacities for working memory. We see this when we ask them to pay attention and follow directions.
In the book Uncommon Sense Teaching, the writers describe working memory as a juggling octopus: “Too many balls at once, and poof, everything falls away!” So, depending on the complexity of the direction or task, it’s important to support students who have different capacities for working memory. We can do this by repeating directions, writing directions down, and supporting tasks with visuals.
The second type of memory engaged while learning is our long-term memory. It exists in the cortex and, unlike our working memory, has an unlimited storage capacity. Long-term memory is broken into two main categories: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory uses the conscious recollection of information, experiences, and concepts. Implicit memory is unconscious memory or performing activities without having to think about them, such as riding a bike. The trick is being able to retrieve the information once it’s stored.
Research on memory shows that our rote memory is very limited, and it’s easy to forget things. When presented with information in isolation or in random order, our brains have a very difficult time encoding it into our long-term memory. According to the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, we forget a lot of what we learn over time. The more time that passes, the more we forget. This happens relatively quickly, and it’ll be lost forever unless we consciously review the information over time. So just because you taught it once doesn’t mean your students are going to remember it.
How can educators enhance students’ ability to remember? Several strategies supported by research can have a significant impact on a student’s ability to remember new learning.
Activating background knowledge: Background knowledge is super-important for learning—there may already be a neural pathway in the brain for the new information to connect to and strengthen. We need to activate those connections before we begin teaching the new content or skill. Concept mapping, word webs, KWL charts, think/pair/share activities, and videos are all strategies that awaken previous knowledge and enhance the process of encoding new information.
Having strong background knowledge can actually improve our working memory. Research on schema-based learning reveals that new learning can embed more easily in the neocortex.
Using retrieval practice: If we can’t recall the information, we haven’t learned it. Students can utilize helpful retrieval practice strategies such as using flash cards, writing down a summary of the day’s learning, and reacting to the lesson by stating three main points and their importance. Try using entrance and exit tickets, giving frequent quizzes, and using programs like Kahoot and Quizlet.
Contextualizing learning: Make learning relevant and interactive. Mix up lessons so that your students don’t have to listen to you talk for more than 10 minutes at a time. They have to use their working memory, which has a very limited capacity, to follow a lecture, so stop and have them do the following:
- Turn and talk to a partner
- Do a demonstration
- Incorporate active learning or hands-on learning intermittently
- Summarize or draw a picture that encompasses the main points of the learning
- Use concept mapping or story mapping strategies throughout a lesson
Using interleaved practice: Make connections. When teachers use interleaved practice, they help students make connections to different topics while learning. For example, they may be learning about a particular historical event, but you then connect it to something else that was going on at the time that was also impacted. This term also describes mixed practice, so maybe your students are revisiting addition and subtraction facts when they practice new multiplication facts. Research shows that interleaving improves retention of new information and results in faster acquisition of the information.
Learning depends on our ability to store new information in our long-term memory and our ability to retrieve that information when we need it. Understanding and applying foundational research on memory can help teachers enhance student learning by improving students’ ability to move new learning from working memory to long-term memory.
When students transfer information into long-term memory, their working memory doesn’t have to work so hard, and they are able to grapple with novel, complex topics quicker and more efficiently. Learning becomes less of a struggle, and students may feel smarter and more confident. When students feel this way, they’re more willing to stick with difficult concepts and problems—allowing them to learn deeply. Ultimately, teachers can see better learning outcomes on assessments, which makes them energized and confident too.