Why don’t students remember what they’ve learned?
Curricula and assessment aren’t designed with memory in mind.
We’ve all had the experience of cramming for an exam and forgetting most of what we learned within a few weeks or days. In the immediate term, this is actually quite useful,
because national exams are often bunched together, sometimes several in the same day.
But in the long-run it’s unhelpful: if you asked me to take a GCSE physics exam today,
I don’t expect I’d do very well: I’ve forgotten almost all of what I learned.
Given the time invested, it seems a waste.
If you’re in teaching, you’ll have had the frustrating experience of seeing a class
grasp and understand a concept perfectly in lessons, only to have completely
and utterly forgotten it when you mention it later on in the year:
they assure you they’ve never heard of it before in their lives.
If you speak languages, you know what it’s like to get rusty;
but also that when you re-immerse yourself in the country for some time,
it comes back to you far quicker than learning an entirely new language.
Memory works in mysterious ways. I was reminded of this when I was asked the other day
by a mystified English teacher: ‘Don’t you find it frustrating when those on English A-level
still don’t remember to use full stops properly?’
The thing I most like about cognitive science is that it helps you understand the puzzling things
you encounter in education. One mystery is why students seem to forget so much
of what they’ve learned. This puzzle has been on my mind for some time.
A while back, I wrote of the troubling lack of knowledge I see in schools in disadvantaged areas,
and those colleagues of mine in similar schools:
A colleague of mine teaching English in a disadvantaged school found that pupils
were under the illusion that the English language was invented in the 1960s
and that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. One teacher found her pupils confused over
whether Iran and Iraq were the same country; whether Sydney was in California;
and whether Henry VIII is the Queen’s son. Another teacher mentions here that 16 year olds
couldn’t place their city on a map of Britain, list the four countries that make up the UK,
tell the difference between England and Great Britain, or name the date
of one significant historical event. Still another teacher and education blogger I know
told me that her pupils thought Manchester was in Scotland, Wales was an island
and the Romans came from Portugal. When asked the capital of Wales, pupils’ best guess
was Scotland. Many couldn’t spot the UK, the US, or China on a map,
even ‘the top set Year 10 superstars.’ Political knowledge also seems impoverished:
in another teacher’s school, many pupils couldn’t name the Prime Minister.
Some had a hazy idea it was Obama. Some said ‘Gordon Blair’. No one could name all three
main political parties, or even any other than Labour. Maths seems to suffer from similar knowledge deficit in some schools in disadvantaged communities. A Maths teacher I know
in the West Midlands told me his pupils thought you might measure the distance
between Liverpool and London in centimetres; one pupil in a Year 10 top set
asked him what ‘square it’ meant; a Year 11 student from another set, one day before a GCSE exam, asked what a percentage was. Even History undergraduates know little:
when surveyed by one University professor, around 90% of them could not name
one British 19th century Prime Minister. If this is what most History graduates do not know,
what can we be sure all school leavers, for whom history is not even compulsory, do know?
One comment replied: ‘Don’t forget that just because pupils don’t know something
(for example details about Shakespeare), it doesn’t mean they haven’t been TAUGHT it.’
Kris Boulton, Deputy Head of Maths at King Soloman Academy, is turning out to be
a bit of a master of memory, especially in the field of mathematics, and he asks:
‘Why do we keep forgetting so much of what we learn? The other day, a Year 10 girl said:
“What’s the point of learning this?” What she meant was, in a week we’d be on to a new topic,
and she’d forget everything she could now do, so where was the point in learning it?
I haven’t yet seen any institutional focus on the importance of building memories.
I would like to suggest that we start to think of building long-term memory retention and recall
as a separate concern; that we start to put thought and effort into thinking about
how we are going to help students remember what they learn from us, that we ask ourselves
at the start of planning a lesson, or a unit ‘How am I going to help ensure my students
still remember this six months from now, a year from now, two years from now…?’
I’d like to take up Kris’ challenge and use the cognitive science of how memory works to explain why our pupils forget what they’ve learned, and ask in future posts what we can do about it.
How memory works
Cognitive scientists Dan Willingham and Robert Bjork have been thinking about the issue
of how memory works for several decades. Their research helps explain how we commit things
to memory, and how we can avoid forgetting them.
Willingham asks: ‘What makes something stick in memory, and what is likely to slip away?
How can the memory system know what it’ll need to remember later?’
‘Given that you cannot store everything away, your memory system lays its bets:
if you think about something carefully [and repeatedly) you’ll probably have to think
about it again, so it should be stored. If you don’t think about something very much,
then you probably won’t want to think about it again, so it need not be stored.
Your memory is a product of what you think most carefully about.
What students think about most carefully is what they will remember.’
Willingham’s model of the mind simplifies cognitive architecture into working memory
and long-term memory:
So, why might students forget things they’ve been taught?
Willingham suggests a number of reasons:
you can’t remember things you haven’t paid sustained attention to in working memory.
you have paid attention, but it hasn’t made it into long-term memory – it never struck.
you can’t remember things that no longer reside in long-term memory –
they have faded through disuse.
your process by which things are drawn from long-term memory is prone to failure:
transfer is difficult, because it’s difficult to apply abstractions to new situations.
In short, we don’t remember things because of insufficient focus, time or attention spent
on them, and because of insufficient practice, usage, revisiting, consolidation or application.
So, when we grumble as teachers that students don’t use punctuation properly,
even though they’ve learned it, we need to ask ourselves: have they really learned it?
Have we really taught it with sufficient time, focus and attention?
Have we sufficiently revisited it? Have we consolidated it in their minds? Have they mastered it?
Have they automated it in their long-term memories?
It’s no good grumbling about pupils’ written ineptitude. Punctuation is complex:
even the basics of using full stops requires lots of little chunks of knowledge to be automatic:
to decide whether a sentence has a subject and a verb to avoid fragments, and whether
a sentence runs on into multiple, confusing independent and subordinate clauses,
you need to know all those concepts: what subjects, verbs, independent and subordinate clauses are! It may be automatic for us, but not for our secondary pupils. If we want our students
to automate complex concepts, we need to ensure sufficient time, focus, attention, revisiting, application, consolidation, practice, usage and eventual mastery.
In many areas, I’m unconvinced we do this for them, as sixth form English students’ weak writing
and history graduates’ weak knowledge testifies.
Why cramming fails; and why you retain rusty languages
Robert Bjork’s model of memory is a grid of storage strength and retrieval strength.
Storage strength is how well learned something is. Retrieval strength is how accessible it is.
I have redesigned it here:
This explains why cramming fails: the GCSE physics exam material I crammed into my mind
had a high retrieval strength, as I could access it on exam day, but low storage strength,
as I never learned it very well in the first place – and now I can’t remember it at all.
It was crammed, and is now forgotten.
This also explains why though I’m rusty at French, which I spoke fluidly at 18, I could get it pick it up again quickly if I went back to France for a week or two; my French has high storage strength
but low retrieval strength. It was mastered, is now buried, but can be re-mastered.
In either case, if I want to remember more of my Physics or more of my French, the route is
the same: increased storage strength and increased retrieval strength is required for mastery.
So how can we help students remember what they’ve learned?
Willingham makes some suggestions:
1. Distributing practice (rather than cramming):
‘it is virtually impossible to become proficient at any mental task without extended,
dedicated practice distributed over time.’
2. Overlearning: keep pupils learning after they know the material to prevent forgetting:
‘a good rule of thumb is to put in another 20 percent of the time it took to master the material’.
3. Testing frequently: testing students frequently helps them remember material.
Bjork makes similar suggestions:
1. Spacing (rather than massing) practice: information that is presented repeatedly
over spaced intervals is learned much better than information that is repeated without intervals.
2. Interleaving: although people think that they learn better when content is blocked, rather
than interleaved, people actually learn content better when it is interleaved with other content.
3. Testing: using our memory improves our memory: the act of retrieval helps us remember
the things we recall. When information is successfully retrieved from memory, its representation
in memory is changed such that it becomes more recallable in the future (Bjork, 1975);
and this improvement is often greater than the benefit resulting from additional study
(Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).
A great illustration of how counterintuitive the testing effect is comes from David Didau:
‘Which of these study patterns is more likely to result in long-term learning?
study study study study – test
study study study test – test
study study test test – test
study test test test – test
Most of us will pick 1. It just feels right, doesn’t it? Spaced repetitions of study are bound to result in better results, right? Wrong. The most successful pattern is in fact No. 4.
Having just one study session, followed by three short testing sessions –
and then a final assessment – will outperform any other pattern. Who would have thought?’
How many of our school curricula and assessment systems are designed with these principles
in mind: spacing distributed, interleaved practice; over learning to mastery; frequent,
low-stakes testing? How many teachers are aware of the research into working memory,
long-term memory, storage strength and retrieval strength? How many of us in education
apply these insights in our curriculum design or day-to-day teaching?
If this diagnosis is right – that the main reason pupils find it so hard to remember subject content
is that our curricula and assessment aren’t designed with memory in mind – we are fortunate
in one sense: there is a clear remedy. We must redesign our school curricula and assessment
with memory in mind. That is the subject of my next post.
Bjork’s research can be read here:
Willingham’s research into memory can be read here:
“Practice Makes Perfect—But Only If You Practice Beyond the Point of Perfection,”
American Educator, Spring 2004, http://www.aft.
“Why Students Think They Understand—When They Don’t,” American Educator, Winter 2003-04, www.aft.org/pubs- reports/american_educator/winter03-04/cognitive.html.
“Students Remember … What They Think About,” American Educator, Summer 2003,http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/ american_educator/summer2003/cogsci.html.
“Allocating Student Study Time: ‘Massed’ versus ‘Distributed’ Practice,” American Educator, Summer 2002, http://www.aft.org/ pubs-reports/american_educator/summer2002/askcognitive scientist.html.
A great summary by David Fawcett on the implications of the research for planning can be read here:
A great example of a teacher applying this research and how a story mnemonic can help students remember a mathematical formula can be read on Kris Boulton’s blog here:
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