Is there a better way to help our students remember?

What an exciting time of year it has been for us at Studley High. As well as breathing a collective sigh of relief along with our year 11 students that all their hard work has come to fruition and the exam season has ended, it is also the time to begin planning for September and reviewing best practice, whilst being outwards facing to see what we can learn that would impact positively on our students.

I have been reading ‘Make it Stick’ by Peter C. Brown; a book that I highly recommend. It draws together a range of evidence-based research and various approaches to looking at how we remember what we have been taught. Now we have terminal exams as the model for many subjects, memorability is a key issue.

As a starting point, I need to understand more about the science of learning and take a fresh look at how I teach children to remember what I have taught them in class. It’s very easy to fall back onto our own experiences and simply regurgitate what we think works, rather than exploring what the latest research and trials on memorability are telling us does work.

Brown begins with a view which we would all agree with, ‘Learning is deeper and more durable when it is effortful’ and we do strive to keep students in the ‘struggle zone’ with their learning. He then explores the effect of ‘massed practice’ which in all honesty, is what most of us do in the classroom. We deliver on a topic for a sequence of lessons and invariably do some form of revision and then test to see how well students have learned. This works well for us as we plan a sequence of lessons and students like it as it does not diversify from the topic and we feel it is being embedded.

But do they remember it when tested at a later date?

The key here is that evidence tells us that actually, they don’t. ‘Retrieval practice’ is a more effective learning strategy – the idea of low-stakes quizzes at intervals throughout the learning journey will produce better outcomes as the information is stored in the brain.

I’m also keen to explore how I can interleave the learning for pupils and build in testing at points across a scheme with low-stakes quizzes. If this does result in students improving their memorability and as a consequence, increases their progress in the subject, this can only be beneficial. Of equal and perhaps even greater note is that Brown attests ‘Frequent low-stakes testing helps dial down test anxiety among students by diversifying the consequences over a much larger sample: no single test is a make-or-break-event.’

Admittedly, with Gove’s move to create terminal examinations and significant weighting based on memorising information, anything that we can build in that helps students’ welfare and sense of well-being through test conditions can only be worthwhile.

So my next steps are to plan in a way to test at spaced intervals, key concepts in low-stakes quizzes across the year.

What’s also key, according to Brown, is ‘the more you can explain about the way your learning relates to prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later’.  This reminds me to vary the ways that I am linking the lesson and learning to the ‘big picture’ and purpose. Of course we link to exams, assessment objectives and their weightings, but this reminds me that it is an opportunity to move beyond that to the world of work, career choices and opportunities for enrichment to wider areas within and beyond the subject.

Next time, I’ll let you know what changes we plan to make, but in the meantime, enjoy the summer break and happy reading!


Anna Ingram

Assistant Head, Head of Teaching School and English Teacher!