The following article comes from Assistant Headteacher Emma Platt, who shares her top tips for revision using ‘memory’ techniques.

I saw a post on Twitter recently – a video of a Chinese schoolboy who, after reading each page of his school book, scooped up the knowledge he had read into his hands and tried to literally put it into his head by touching it and therefore absorbing it.  If only it were that simple.

The post got 886 ‘likes’ and made lots of the teaching profession smile – but it got me thinking about what we ask of our pupils in terms of remembering things and retaining information.

If a pupil has 5 lessons per day, that’s 25 lessons per week, 100-125 lessons per month which equates to 300-375 lessons per term.

If a pupil is given only 3 pieces of information to retain every lesson, this equates to approximately 1000 pieces of information to retain and recall sometimes months later in an exam.  Sounds easy? Could we do it? I wonder.

I talk to pupils and colleagues about the brain and remembering things a lot! It fascinates me.

Immediate Memory – This holds information for a few seconds and passes it to your short term memory.

Short Term (or Working Memory)– This can hold about 7 items at a time.  If information is not rehearsed immediately or seen in your head, it will be forgotten in 30 seconds. It sifts, rejects and selects information to go into the long term memory.

Long Term Memory – This is the storage system that holds millions of pieces of data.  You have several long term memories – including a visual memory for what you see, an auditory memory for what you hear and a motor memory for what you do.

In the film, ‘Inside Out’, they mention the term ‘getting lost in long term memory – I’m positive you’ll get lost in there!’, well, yes, that’s a possibility!  So, how can we help pupils with their revision and improve their long term memory to remember key things?

Ebbinghaus ‘Forgetting Curve’

The Ebbinghaus ‘Forgetting Curve’ below goes some way to explain the issue our pupils have:

The facts are quite worrying – if new information isn’t applied, then we will forget about 75% of it after just six days. So, as teachers, we need to constantly return to the information we want our pupils to remember.

One of the best ways to do this is by ‘chunking’, ‘spacing’ information – doing something little and often, spacing out and repeating key points has proven that the time in between allows you to forget and re-learn the information, which cements it into your long-term memory. In some studies, using spacing instead of cramming has resulted in a 10% to 30% difference in final tests results.

The difference is huge: people who leave more than 24 hours between their first five attempts score as highly, on average, as people who have practiced 50% more than them.

The Zeigarnik Effect

Almost 90 years ago in a café in Berlin, Psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, was amazed at how the waiter in the café was able to remember multiple orders without writing anything down, but once they had finished the meal he was unable to recall what they had asked for. This promoted years of research that found that once a task has been started – but not completed – an inner tension helps the person keep it in mind. If we can encourage pupils to just start the task, then the Zeigarnik effect may take over.

Do your pupils use post-it notes to help remember things? Just looking at notes won’t help to learn them. This has been shown to have almost no effect on whether pupils do remember key points.

Instead, encourage pupils to reorganise the information in some way to ensure material gets lodged into their long term memory – reorganise notes and information in some way.

Things We Can Do to Help

1. Try ‘The Memory Palace Technique’ with pupils, it works!

70% of what you learn in a day is gone within 24 hours unless you intend to remember and practise it.   To improve your memory, you need to create associations between things and stronger pathways from your senses to the information that you need to remember. I use the Memory Palace a lot with pupils.

Memory Palace is an imaginary location in your mind where you can store mnemonic images. The most common type of memory palace involves making a journey through a place you know well, like your home. Along that journey there are specific locations that you always visit in the same order. For example, the phone sits on the green table next to the green sofa in the living room, the sun shines through the window in the dining room where I can see a view of the local Church with my dog chasing a butterfly. Ask the pupils to imagine themselves walking around their house and remembering the objects they need to.  When I show pupils the images below in my Revision Assembly, by the end of the assembly, pupils can remember far more images than they thought they would.  When I ask them about it when I see pupils on the corridor repeatedly throughout the week, and again at a further assembly, pupils are surprised that they can remember the images shown in the assembly and that this technique actually works! Try it with pupils, you will be surprised.

2. Retrieval Practice

‘Retrieval Practice’ is the act of trying to pull information out of your memory and is a very useful strategy to use with pupils.  It seems counter-intuitive at first that trying to remember something helps you to learn it, but you’ll be astonished at how powerful this strategy can be for getting information locked away in memory, ready for when pupils need it.

Kate Jones (@KateJones_teach) has written two books on the topic of Retrieval practice and I recommend you purchase them, read them and use the tips with pupils – you will not regret it.

When something can be recalled almost instantly, without any conscious thought, the knowledge has gained automaticity.

This is a really good example of one of the many types of ‘Retrieval Practice’ grids out there – it asks pupils to remember things and score points with the higher points being scored for the further back they can remember. It’s quite a competitive task!

3. Rest and Sleep

New research shows that a brief rest after learning something can help you remember it a week later.  Even napping can help consolidate pupils’ memories – maybe there is an excuse for pupils having a nap in class after all! Failing that, encourage pupils to eat blueberries – a study in America suggested that eating blueberries might be effective in improving short-term memory loss too.

4. Revision Apps

Some excellent revision apps recommended by @TeacherToolkit for pupils to use to help them.  Check them out!

So there you go, hopefully you can take away some useful tips to use with pupils in the classroom to help with their revision.  I hope you found it useful.


Emma Platt

Emma Platt is an Assistant Headteacher, responsible for Teaching & Learning in a Secondary High School and teaches English in North Manchester.

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