Memory and training students to retain information is an issue that is becoming more current for the world of teaching. There is no doubt that memory is the foundation for a sound knowledge base, yet past pedagogical theory has portrayed ‘remembering information’ to be a lower level skill. For this reason, Blooms’ hierarchy could be argued to be a paradox. Whilst memory is firmly placed at the bottom of the hierarchy, surely we need to remember the relevant information to be able to perform the higher order skills of applying, analysing and evaluating. In addition to this, recent curriculum change has created a climate in which students have to remember more information for a longer period of time. Therefore, teaching for retention has never been more critical for student outcomes.

How has curriculum reform made memory more important?
The demands on students to remember large amounts of abstract and intricate detail are present across all subject disciplines. There is a greater amount of specification content and it is often more advanced than previous syllabuses. This has inevitably made it more challenging for the students to remember. Knowledge assessment objectives are heavily weighted, meaning that students must demonstrate a substantial and detailed account of their knowledge. Equally the shift towards linear qualifications, with less emphasis on controlled assessment, has meant that students now have to retain their knowledge for up to three years before the final exams. All of this has meant that OFSTED are now more likely to scrutinise curriculum design, and how we are creating regular opportunities for students to revisit, rehearse and retrieve prior learning.

Types of Memory

When discussing memory, the distinction must be made between short term and long term memory. During the confines of a lesson, a student will be using their working memory, a short term store with a limited capacity of around 5-9 chunks. It is only if this information is transferred to long term memory, a vast infinite storehouse, that the information has been retained. It is important for teachers to recognise that there are different types of long term memories that students may need to form, varying across subject disciplines.

  • Semantic – These are memories for facts about the world such as ‘the capital city of France is Paris.’ They have meaning attached to them. In most subject areas, semantic memories will be formed for names, key terms, concepts and theories.
  • Procedural – These are memories for skills or HOW to do something. For example, the process involved in solving an equation or how to annotate a poem.
  • Episodic – These are memories for personal events or episodes. For example, a memorable lesson or a school trip.

Whilst episodic long term memories may be less relevant to teaching, it is important that students are both able to recall facts (semantic) and processes (procedural) for their exams.

Cognitive Load
One of the biggest problems facing teachers and students is that working memory is limited and can only hold about 5-9 chunks of information at a time. If we overload the working memory of students, more chunks will be pushed out before they are transferred to long term memory. This is called cognitive load theory. The more we minimise the load the more likely the retention of the information. So how can we try to reduce the load in lessons?

Minimise Distractions
Ensure that your table layout doesn’t promote off task conversations. These conversations would be extraneous load.

Minimise Instructions
Avoid complex tasks with multiple instructions. Students will become too preoccupied in trying to process the instructions rather than the knowledge.

Remove Unnecessary Information

Slides that are too busy place extra demands on our working memory, producing extraneous load. Remove unnecessary information, text or pictures from your slides. 

Another method to avoid overloading working memory is through chunking information into 5-9 more manageable chunks. For example, if you were asked to remember the string of letters ITVRAC NATOBBCNASABTEC this may overload your memory because there are too many elements. However, if you broke them down into manageable chunks ITV RAC NATO BBC NASA BTEC, then chances are they are easier to retain.

Chunking can be applied to learning a new theory or topic (semantic memories), or even a process (procedural memories). You can ask students to recall ‘how’ to do something in a limited number of steps, to enable them to break down the skill. E.g. ‘Write down how to calculate the area of a circle in no more than 5 steps.’

Retention Starters
Research has shown that ‘the struggle of trying to retrieve is what makes memory stronger,’ so in order to fully facilitate retention, regular opportunities to practise retrieval should be embedded into curriculum design. The regularity of these opportunities is even more critical as Sprenger found that on average, students should revisit material 28 times prior to a summative assessment. One of the simplest strategies for this is to interleave these opportunities into starter activities. Through spontaneously asking students to recall prior learning from one year ago, one term ago, one month ago or even one week ago, we are giving them the struggle they need to strengthen their long term memories.

Retrieval starters can take many forms from low stakes multiple choice quizzes, mini tests, think-pair-share activities or even standalone exam questions. Below is an example of one particular retention starter known as a retention grid. A competitive element could be added by awarding points dependent upon the length of time that has passed since first learning the information.


Building in these opportunities give students the necessary retrieval practice to tackle linear qualifications head on because the requirement to know more is made easier with the ability to remember more!