Developing Long Term Memory By Rehearsal

Remember when you were in primary and the teacher had the whole class reciting the times tables? “1×4 is 4… 2×4 is 8… 3×4 is 12…”

How many times do we do that in secondary schools? I can only imagine the look on SLT’s face if they walked in and a teacher was rote rehearsing something. The issue is that, as Rosenshine so succinctly writes,

“Education involves helping a novice develop strong, readily accessible background knowledge… and this occurs when knowledge is well rehearsed and tied to other knowledge.”

Call this a silly example, but by her merely listening to me reading her ‘Tiger Who Came To Tea’ and ‘Mog The Forgetful Cat’ book, my daughter knows them by heart. She’s 3. I can open it to any page in either book and she knows the lines that are in that page. And it isn’t just those books, mind you – she’s memorised her entire library. She also knows that the tiger in ‘Tiger Who Came To Tea’ is strikingly similar to the one in ‘Mog’. She’ll later discover that it’s because they’re by the same author – she’ll be able to make links and connect dots.

We lose this in secondary school. It’s almost as if we’re afraid of getting our kids to just memorise things, but it’s so critical. And even if we’re OK with them memorising things, God forbid that it’s by rote learning, but guess what? That’s critical also for the foundational knowledge that they need in order to be able to access everything else. You need children to memorise lines from a play; you need them to be able to recall Qur’an and Bible quotes in RE; you need them to have memorised the formulas in physics. How do you do that? Rehearse. Again and again. Don’t be afraid of doing that, because it’s only once students are secure in their knowledge of those basics that they can access more complicated things, make links between different topics and subject areas, and yes, be able to answer exam questions. Even if it wasn’t about exams, they’ll have general knowledge, which is so crucial in just being able to understand the wider world and events as they go through life.

So here are just three very basic techniques that you can incorporate into your lessons to get students to rehearse the things they just HAVE to know:

1) Memory Training

At some point during a lesson or a week, put up a slide with the key knowledge that students need to have memorised. Leave the slide up for 2-3 minutes for them to read the information over and over again and try to memorise it. After the time is up, blank the slide out and have students write down what they recall. Make it a low-stakes test by giving them a mark for each thing they recalled correctly. Do it every lesson, or at least twice a week. If you only see them once a week, make it once a week. You’ll be surprised how many quotes/formulas/methods they’ve memorised by the end of the half term. Strengthen that knowledge by giving them opportunities to apply it in other forms of assessment, e.g. long or short-answer questions, or multiple choice.

2) Use your knowledge organisers

Knowledge organisers should contain the absolute core knowledge that students need to have retained in their long-term memory. Since they’re already built for that purpose, just make it part of a starter activity, or part of a lesson where they (again) have to focus on a part of the knowledge organiser to repeatedly read for 2-3 minutes and then put them away and try to recall everything in that particular section. You do that enough times and across different sections, they’ll have soon memorised the entire thing.

3) Give students the same exam/quiz questions over a period of time (re-testing)

Again, none of this is rocket science, but just facing the same question in random quizzes/tests and then being exposed to its answer repeatedly will help students to memorise what you want them to through shear exposure and having to re-read it every week/month. This works really well with short-answer questions. Create a bank of them for each topic in your subject area and then create space in your curriculum where you’ll just give them a quiz on questions you’ve selected at random. This means that the same question will come up in different quizzes, and you’ll go through the answers, so students will memorise the answer eventually.

So there you have it. Rehearsal is one of the key factors in long-term retention of any knowledge and skill. It has to be repeated. These three techniques will help students build the core knowledge of your subject into their long-term memory, making everything else a lot easier for them (and you).


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