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Can we tweak the way we plan to make learning ‘stick’ in the long run?

There is no doubting that as teachers we are skilled at designing and crafting great lessons.  For some this is natural and consistent throughout the year.  For others it takes a little more time and effort but we get there in the end.  Now these lessons can feel effortless in delivery and the learning that takes place is phenomenal.  Students explain the understanding, meaning is developed and higher levels of thinking are achieved.  We walk out of the lesson feeling that students have really ‘nailed that topic’ and leave with a smile on our face.  A few weeks pass and we sit students down with a unit exam confident that they know everything inside out.  And then, during the meticulous marking that takes place afterwards, the alarm bells ring and the ‘How do they not remember this stuff!’ Klaxon sounds loudly.  All of the signs in lessons had been great, but for some reason it seems students have forgotten everything.

Now this is simply a worst case scenario but I am sure at more than one point in our career we have had a similar incident.  So with all of our careful planning, how is it that students seem to understand what you tell them in lesson, but forget it a little while down the line?

There are numerous theories and principles out there from the world of cognitive science and psychology that I would urge you to investigate.  A great starting point would be the work of Robert Bjork and his notion of Desirable Difficulties.  Knowing what we know about this theory, can we tweak the way we plan to make learning stick in the long run?

What we need to start off by understanding is that as Daniel T Willingham says “your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about”.  Therefore whatever we do in lessons, if we want it to stick then students need to think about it.  It’s when we then think and learn this information that Robert Bjork’s desirable difficulties come into play.  Any new information we try to learn and commit to the long term memory is effected by its storage strength or retrieval strength.  Its storage strength is how well learned new information is.  Its retrieval strength is how accessible (or retrievable) it is in memory.  Both work hand in hand and in a very simplistic statement, learning something well to increase its storage strength means it has more chance of it being retrieved at a later date (higher retrieval strength).  So, how can we use desirable difficulties in our planning to increase the chance of remembering?

Space out the learning

Rather than simply spending longer learning something new, it is more beneficial to spread out the number of times we revisit or practice that information throughout the course.  Spacing out the times we recap or go over this information again can have a significant improvement on memory.  It is very obvious to say that the more times we touch upon the subject over time, the stronger the connections to that information become.

So why does it help?

As we leave the time between occasions that we cover a topic, the retrieval strength to find that information decreases.  When we revisit the topic again in the future, the brain increases the retrieval strength so that next time it becomes easier to access.  It is almost that the act of forgetting actually improves remembering.  To get the best benefits of this principle, it is advised that these gaps increase over time.  This again allows the retrieval strength of this information to deteriorate, only for it to be improved when we revisit the topic again.  Strategically planning out and mapping this throughout a course is a good investment of time.  Designing and writing in opportunities to revisit topics on numerous occasions is easy enough to do and benefits long term memory.


Image courtesy of David Didau


Many of us plan or design our courses to ‘block’ topics together.  In PE, we might teach a whole unit on physiology and then move onto the next topic.  This blocking of topics may seem organised, but it actually hinders the ability to increase storage strength of information.  Instead Bjork suggests that we interleave topics so that we cover elements of each at different times throughout the year.  This obviously causes the curriculum design to be brave and step away from massed practice but the benefits again increase the retrieval strength of information in the long term memory.  It may mean that in any given unit we have numerous topics being taught at any one time and for some this may feel unnatural.

So why does it help?

Blocking a topic together means that we learn content in a way that we feel confident, but instead this is a false sense of security.  We normally cover a topic in one chunk and then revisit it only when revision season approaches.  Instead, interleaving numerous topics at the same time brings on many of the spacing benefits.  It also forces students to constantly reload information and again increase retrieval strength.  The process constantly links and recalls topics and allows opportunities for things such as juxtaposition to take place.  The anxious feeling of this method also requires the learner to become more attentive and take more care.

But…if this huge step seems too extreme to begin with, why not simply map out times in each unit where various topics are constantly interlinked and referred to.  It may not be the same but it is one step towards the principle.


The testing effect

Testing can come in the form of many activities and is not just simply tied into exam style questions or scenarios.  It can come in the simplest of forms such as asking students to mind map out everything they learnt last lesson without the use of a book.  Now the principle of using tests to aid memory can be very powerful.

“Taking a test often does more than assess knowledge; tests can also provide opportunities for learning. When information is successfully retrieved from memory, its representation in memory is changed such that it becomes more recallable in the future and this improvement is often greater than the benefit resulting from additional study.”


Using tests is simple enough to do and in some research papers, the actual use of tests can improve memory compared to simply restudying a topic.

So why does it help?

Like the other methods, testing forces students to actively retrieve the information.  As you can expect, this increases the retrieval strength and the information is more accessible next time.  The use of multiple choice is also very effective if possible answers are constructed well enough.  The action of eliminating incorrect responses by thinking through the possibilities also increases the effect on long term memory.  Planning in increased opportunities to test students’ memory retention can be easily incorporated into long term planning through activities such as mini quizzes, testing your partner, mindmap last lessons learning during a starter activity and so on.  Anything that actively gets them to spend time recalling previous learning.


So as you go forward and plan or review your schemes of work or learning, is there scope or opportunity to incorporate elements of these desirable difficulties in order to make students not only understand, but also remember!

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