Tag Archives: Memory

What every teacher should do: understand how memory works⤴

from @ Becoming Educated

I was never explicitly taught about memory in my eight years of teaching. This is no one’s fault as we are all doing the best we can. However, having starting reading books and blogs there is a whole world of education research still untouched by many. One important area that I feel all teachers should know about is that of memory and how memory works.

We all want our students to remember stuff and I am sure we can all empathise with each others frustration at the students knowing stuff during lessons but completely forgetting it when it matters, during tests. Understanding how our memory works is key to tackling this all too common classroom occurrence.

In my last post we briefly explored Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and we discussed our ability to retain information through spaced retrieval. To understand this in greater depth we must explore our working memory and long term memory.

Working Memory

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Credit – Oliver Caviglioli

The first area to consider is that of our Working Memory (WM). Research into our WM has shown that it is a finite resource, with some researchers claiming we can only hold up to 7 (plus 2) ‘chunk’ of information at any one time, some recent research has suggested that the number could be as low as 4 ‘chunks’. Our WM is where we process information from our current environment and also draw upon knowledge from our long-term memory. As mentioned our WM is a finite resource but it is always active and processing information. To reiterate, our working memory is always full, it is taking in everything in our surrounding. As David Didau writes:

Working memory is synonymous with awareness. It is the sit of conscious thought. The act of paying attention, of reading these words, of listening to your children complain about how much homework they’ve got to finish for Monday morning, fill sup our working memory. In practical terms our, our working memories are always active, even when we are focussing on something in particular. We’re constantly absorbing and processing sensory data from the world around us.David Didau, Making Kids Cleverer.

This is where Sweller’s ‘Cognitive Load Theory’ comes into play for us teachers. Often we ‘overload’ our students with too much information which produces too much cognitive load. To lighten this cognitive load our students have to have acquired knowledge in the long-term memory, referred to in literature as schemas (schemas are basically folders of knowledge on one topic, the more the folder is filled with knowledge the lighter the load on working memory for that particular area of knowledge).

As you can see in the graphic our working memory fills up and we can either learn the material by storing it in our long-term memory or forget it. If our WM is filled with too much cognitive load then whatever else is added will most certainly be forgotten so it is worth learning more on Cognitive Load Theory.

Despite the apparent bottleneck of our working memory there are strategies that we can use to overcome cognitive load. Firstly, having a vast store of knowledge in our long-term memory in the form of schemas will certainly help, in simple terms – the stronger the schema the lighter the load on our working memory (this is basically why experts make some things look so effortless and novices struggle so much).

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Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model

Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model (WMM) is one of the most robust theories in cognitive science and gives us further insight into working memory. The Central Executive (CE) acts a bit like a supervisor or night club bouncer. As information tries to enter the ‘club’ the CE focuses attention on the information and decides which one to attend to, or to continue the analogy which one gets into the club and which information gets the good old ‘not tonight pal!’. It’s important to note that the CE is entirely under our control and is more of a subconscious function. Every teacher can speak to losing a classes focus when a wasp enters the room!

The Phonological Loop (PL) deals mainly with speech and other types of audio. This is where we store verbal information, up to about 2 seconds before it is overwritten and new information comes in. We either move it to our long-term memory or forget it.

The Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad (VSS) briefly holds visual information and the spatial relationship between things. Imagine the light goes out in your room, this is where you store the memory of where all of your clutter is so that you don’t trip up.

The Episodic Buffer (EB) was added to the WMM in 2000. It was added because there was evidence to suggest we needed a component to combine the information in the WMM stores to what we already know – our prior knowledge stored in our long-term memory. This shows the importance of a vast array of knowledge in our long-term memory. The more you know and the larger your schema is for a topic, the lighter the load on your working memory.

The role of LTM in helping working memory is well established and very easy to demonstrate (e.g. – compare the retention of a random sequence of letters – DPL OAM IGGB – to a sequence containing meaningful ‘chunks’: DOG PIG LAMB)Taken from ‘What every teacher needs to know about psychology’, Didau & Rose

One of the key things to note about working memory is just how limited it is.If you are distracted while trying to process something you will lose the information you are trying to process (think about what this means when the damn wasp flies in.) We also can only deal with a small amount of information at any one time as suggested by Miller’s ‘7 plus 2’ chunks from his research in 1950.

This is why it is so important that teachers know about Cognitive Load Theory and Dual Coding Theory to help them combat the limited working memory of their students. Dylan Wiliam said that cognitive load theory is the “single most important thing for teachers to know” However, to really help our students we should be working hard to get the information we teach into their long-term memory.

Long-Term Memory

First, we must note that our memories are invisible to us and there isn’t any consensus as to where exactly our memories are stored but we know enough that our long-term memory is vast and perhaps even limitless and the more stuff we have in there the easier it is to learn as the working memory load will be reduced. Learning has been defined as “a change in long term memory” by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark. If we run with this then, it is our acquisition of schema that fills our long term memory.

Storing memories is about making links and connections between our experiences in a vast network of related concepts and contexts. These links and connections are referred to as ‘schema’. As mentioned earlier a schema can be though of like a folder in your laptop that gets filled with the relevant knowledge in one given topic. An example of a schema in action is as follows:

A frequently used example is going to a restaurant. The schema for getting a table, ordering food and drink, and paying for the meal makes visiting a new restaurant for the first time, even in another country, a pretty straightforwards process, as we deal with new situations by linking them to things we’ve encountered in the past.David Didau, Making Kids Cleverer

Our long-term memory isn’t a single storage unit and psychologists tend to divide it into to separate but interlinked systems: declarative memory and non-declarative memory.

Non- declarative memory is a catch-all term for everything that may exist in our long-term memory that we are unable to put into words. An example of this is your ability to read this sentence and understand the phoneme-grapheme correspondences required to read this, you just know how to do it (even though it was once a challenging and hard learning experience). Other procedural skills like tying your shoelaces, walking, swimming or cycling are features of non-declarative memory.

Declarative memories are the memories we can declare: “Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Real Madrid”, “they are 30 years old”, “pythagoras theorem is a2 + b2 = c2” and so on. Declarative memory can be either episodic or semantic.

Episodic memories are those of experiences and specific events, how you felt at during those events. We can often replay events in great detail using our episodic memories. Whereas, Semantic memories are a more structured record of facts, concepts and meanings. Episodic memories are mainly context dependant but semantic memories are more flexible and can be applied across a range of contexts.

The two systems, episodic and semantic are linked in several ways. Semantic memories can become ‘stand alone’ memories but they are often derived from a specific episodic memory. In terms of teaching an episodic memory could be that of a particular lesson and the semantic memories are the facts, key terms and concepts of that lesson. Quite often our students can recall episodic information from a lesson but struggle with recalling the semantic information.

Understanding episodic and semantic memory can help us, as teachers, understand why our children oftentimes can’t recall what we teach them. They remember the episodic memories of lessons – messing about with friends, Mr Murphy’s horrible breath and being given detention for incomplete homework. In order to make our semantic memories stronger we must retrieve factual information often which will allow us to retain our learning over the long term. Which is why retrieval practice really is an important pedagogy to undertake.

If we don’t retrieve the semantic memories, when asked “do you remember when we learned about plate tectonics?”. The students might reply with “oh yes i do remember” but they may be recalling the episodic memory and not the semantic memory and unless the teacher digs deeper with further probing questions the student will have the illusion of knowledge and perhaps be relying on the familiarity effect, with no change in their long term memory.

There have been great studies that have revealed the links between semantic and episodic memories. The most famous of these is by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer. They showed participants of their study a series of films involving car collisions and found that estimations of the speed the car was travelling could be manipulated by changing the verb used in their question. Where participants were asked “about how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” they gave lower speed estimates when compared to participants who were asked “about how fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?”. The change in language appeared to create a ‘fact’ about the collision which influenced the memory of the collisions they witnessed.

As mentioned earlier a ‘schema’ is like a big folder with interrelated concepts and contexts and is assembled of non-declarative and declarative memories. Some of what we remember is semantic, some is episodic, but they are all stored somewhere within our brain.


Didau, David and Nick Rose (2016) What every teacher need to know about psychology

Didau, David (2015) What is everything you knew about education was wrong?

Didau, David (2019) Making Kids Cleverer

Misconceptions about learning⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

Memory does not work like a video camera.  Image by beegaia  from Pixabay.

Memory does not work like a video camera. Image by beegaia from Pixabay.

Perhaps surprisingly, what people believe about learning and memory is often very different from the scientific consensus.

For example, in a large-scale survey of members of the public, Simons and Chabris (2011) found that over 80% of participants believed that amnesia sufferers forget their own name. This is actually not the case – the memory loss tends to affect recent events rather than their personal identity or childhood memories. In the same study, 63% of members of the public agreed with the idea that memory works like a video camera, while 48% agreed that once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory does not change. None of these ideas are supported by mainstream psychological science; a linked study of psychology researchers found 0% endorsement in every case.

Memory seems to be fundamentally counterintuitive, and there are many other myths and misconceptions out there. Guilmette and Paglia (2004) found that 41% of respondents agreed with the idea that a second blow to the head can help a person remember things that were forgotten as a result of a first blow to the head!. Other studies have found widespread support for myths about learning, even among highly educated people.

A couple of years ago I conducted a study which presented a set of statements about learning and memory to teachers; some statements fit with contemporary learning science and others did not. Here I share some of the flawed/wrong statements used, together with my comments (provided as feedback to participants) about why these might best be viewed as misconceptions:

- To improve the effectiveness of learning you have to increase the time spent studying.

This may seem obvious, but is not actually true. Experiments into memory nearly always keep study time constant, but can still demonstrate impressive improvements in memory for information depending on the way that the learning takes place. The idea that attainment directly results from time and effort is therefore over-simplistic. Imagine walking up the down escalator – it would require a lot of time and effort, but wouldn't get you very far. Study advice given to students should therefore be more sophisticated than just "work hard".

- Learners are in the best position to judge what and how they should study.

In fact, learners make many mistakes when regulating their own learning. Learners tend to select easier to-be-learned items, and stop studying when they perceive that they are no longer learning; this approach may be ineffective as it and leads to their avoiding studying harder but important material (Metcalfe & Kornell, 2005). When it comes to specific study techniques, Hartwig and Dunlosky (2012) found that most learners use techniques that are out of step with the strategies which are supported by research, but that those who do use such strategies gain better grades. As Kornell and Bjork (2007) put it, "the task of becoming a metacognitively sophisticated learner is far from simple; it requires going against certain intuitions and standard practices, having a reasonably accurate mental model of how learning works, and not being misled by short-term performance" (p.223).

- The majority of information taught during a class will still be retained by learners 2-3 weeks later.

Forgetting of lesson material is actually very rapid if nothing is done to prevent it. The classic forgetting curve suggests forgetting of approximately 80% within this timeframe. It should be considered that the level of forgetting varies widely depending on the type of material, the learner, and various other factors, but nevertheless, teachers would do well to assume that much of what is taught will be forgotten if nothing is done to prevent this from happening.

- The best way to learn something is to go over it repeatedly within the same hour.

Although this may be a useful thing to do in some circumstances, it is not the most efficient way to learn something because performance over the short term is a poor indicator of long-term learning (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015), and in addition, this type of activity fails to take advantage of the reliable benefits of spacing out learning over multiple study sessions – a single study session would be followed by a lot of forgetting (see above), which spaced out review activities could minimise. This benefit is known as the ‘spacing effect’.

- It’s always best to simplify things for learners in some way, because making something easier helps it to be processed into long-term memory.

No, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, many factors which slow down learning or make it harder are actually beneficial can improve learning – these are what Bjork (1994) refers to as desirable difficulties (see video clip). It’s true that it is possible to overload learners by presenting too much at once – human working memory can only process a certain amount of information at a time. But that doesn’t mean that we should always make things as easy as possible for students.

- Multiple re-readings are more useful for learning than doing lots of tests.

They are not. A study by Roediger and Karpicke (2006) compared multiple-re-readings with multiple tests, and found that when a one-week delay was taken into account, testing was much more effective than re-reading. It is likely that beyond the first reading, there is very little to be gained from subsequent repetitions in most cases. Testing, in contrast, promotes active retrieval of information (see Karpicke et al, 2014, for a discussion of theoretical explanations behind the testing effect).

- Good study advice for learners should include telling them to find a place where they are comfortable and to do all their revision there.

Although this is popular advice and can on occasion provide reassurance to learners, memory researchers such as Robert Bjork advocate varying our study locations. Doing so leads to a more diverse set of associations forming between the studied material and incidental cues in the physical surroundings, and these cues can boost recall at a later date (see also Smith & Rothkopf, 1984). Different locations may also help the revision session to stand out as a unique event in episodic long-term memory.

- If a learner guesses and is not correct they may remember the wrong answer, so it’s best to avoid guessing/predictions during lessons.

Contrary to this popular idea, guessing incorrectly has been shown to be harmless by a number of studies (e.g. Kang et al, 2011) and may even be beneficial (Metcalfe, 2017; Richland et al, 2009). Kornell & Vaughn (2016) have provided evidence that failed retrieval followed by feedback is just as beneficial as successful retrieval; if success is not essential, this gives teachers more flexibility and freedom about how to structure retrieval practice tasks. In addition, doing a quiz during a lesson may help to minimise the extent to which we get old items mixed up with newer ones (Szpunar et al, 2008Wissman et al, 2011).

- Ultimately, learners form new memories through frequent repetition.

Spaced out practice testing and elaborative links (where rich, meaningful connections are made) are more important than simple repetition. The 1960s 'multi-store model of memory' (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968) claimed that repetition/rehearsal in STM was necessary and sufficient for memorisation, but by the early 1970s this was already seen as oversimplistic – a study by Craik and Watkins (1973) showed that repetition alone does not lead to memorisation, and other studies at around the same time showed that meaningful items are much better remembered. Repetition/practice is clearly going to be better than no repetition, but is very inefficient unless combined with other well-evidenced strategies.

- It makes sense to do a homework task soon after the material is done in class.

On the basis of the spacing effect, it would actually make more sense to delay homework by at least a few days.

- Once learners have got a question wrong and then been corrected, they will be able to predict whether they will get it right in future.

Learners’ predictions of their own performance can be fairly accurate but are subject to flaws too. Learners draw on their memories of past tests to predict their future recall (Finn & Metcalfe, 2008), so if they got something right in the past, they tend to predict future success too. This heuristic is not always accurate, however – see the previous point about short-term performance v's long-term learning. As Agarwal and Bain discuss in their book Powerful Teaching, desirable difficulties can help learners to make more accurate predictions of future performance.


These beliefs about learning are common, and are arguably not in the same category as ideas such as learning styles or the left-brain right brain myth. However, they can be harmful – if teachers’ (or students’) views of learning are flawed, then their planning and decision making is likely to be flawed as well.

My survey presented these and other items, some of which were in line with the evidence (e.g. “Learners benefit from mixing up lots of different types of problems, rather than doing one type of task at a time”). And what did I find? Well, the teachers in my survey generally performed better than the general public in terms of not endorsing debunked ideas such as repression, or memory working like a video camera. But there were some notable classroom-relevant misconceptions that were widely endorsed. In particular, participants tended to endorse massing rather than spacing of learning, and re-reading/restudying rather than retrieval and testing.

Interestingly, there was no link between the accuracy of their answers and the number of years spent teaching, suggesting that misconceptions don’t self-correct through experience.

This is an article based on my research study:

Firth, J. (2018). Teachers’ beliefs about memory: What are the implications for in-service teacher education? Psychology of Education Review, 42(2), 15-22.

For a more evidence-based approach to memory and learning that links to all aspects of classroom practice, check out my co-authored book, Psychology in the Classroom.

Also on this blog: What should students focus on? Evidence-based study habits.

What did memory evolve to do?⤴

from @ Memory & Education Blog - Jonathan Firth

It is thought that most of human evolution took place on a grasslands environment, but how does that affect learning and memory today? Image by Diana Robinson. 

It is thought that most of human evolution took place on a grasslands environment, but how does that affect learning and memory today? Image by Diana Robinson

Humans have evolved over the course of millions of years. Since we last shared a common ancestors with chimpanzees more than 6 million years ago (White et al, 2009), a number of hominin species have evolved - most, of course, have died out (as recently as 100,000 years ago, 4-5 homo species existed concurrently).

For most of this time, our ancestors and near relatives probably lived in grasslands environments, hunting and gathering. This environment has shaped our physical bodies as well as our behaviour - from our appetite for fatty and sweet foods, to our large brains which facilitate cooperation and interactions in large tribes.

Role of evolution in memory

Beyond a general acknowledgement that our brains and cognitive abilities are the product of evolution, human memory research has largely ignored our evolutionary history, focusing on short-term processing (see Bahrick, 2005) and using tasks which take little account of the context in which things are encountered in the real world.

An important advance was made when James Nairne and colleagues conducted an experiment demonstrating that people remember information better when they process it in a grasslands scenario. In an ingenious study, participants were shown a list of words such as truck, juice, chair and sword and were then asked to rate how relevant these objects were to the following scenario:

Remarkably, in a later surprise test, participants remembered the words significantly better having thought about them in this context compared to the other conditions used in the experiment - one of which involved a moving house scenario, and the other required participants simply to think about the pleasantness of the word (a standard memory intervention which promotes deep processing).

If this sounds like a fluke, the effect has been replicated several times and by many different researchers; other comparison scenarios have been tried - for example a bank robbery (Kang et al, 2008), zombies in the city (Soderstrom & McCabe, 2011), and even an 'in the afterlife' scenario (Röer et al, 2013) - but none have proved superior or even equal in promoting recall of a set of items.

Is this truly 'survival processing'?

A simple but very general question arises from this work - assuming that our evolution has prepared us to do certain things better than others, how specific are these abilities? Have we really been hard-wired to process grasslands survival situations better than other situations in a way that affects all of human memory today?

Alternatively, is the grasslands research scenario somehow drawing on a more general aspect of memory that the other scenarios fail to tap into?

My reading of the research literature so far gives the impression that many researchers are trying their best to demonstrate the latter. Three particularly interesting possibilities include:

- It causes us to plan more more than other scenarios, and planning leads to better encoding to memory (Klein, 2014).

- It causes us to encode items more richly (Bell et al, 2015). Elaborative encoding is well known to benefit long-memory - which, after all, is based on making meaningful connections.

- It allows for more creative thinking in terms of how the objects are used. In keeping with this possibility, Wilson (2016) found that a grasslands scenario was also better at promoting creative thinking about object uses than any of the other widely used comparison conditions. If we think creatively about something, we may well remember it better due to the generation effect.

The exact variables at play are still under investigation, and it could be a combination of these factors - the grasslands scenario may promote more creative, future-focused and meaningful thought processes. It is curious, however, how no other scenario has so far proved to be comparably successful in boosting memory - at least with the original tasks and materials.

What does this mean for education?

As a relatively new area of research, survival processing has not yet had a significant impact on education, but it does have potential. With further testing, a set of principles could be established, allowing classroom activities to be designed to incorporate elements of risk/danger, future planning, creativity, etc.

Survival processing is not the only possible effect of evolution on memory that could impact on education. For example, we also remember animals better than inanimate objects - an effect which has been trialled for use in the learning of language vocabulary (Nairne, 2016).

More broadly, many of the most robust findings from the study of memory make perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. The spacing effect, for example, fits with the idea that any animal needs to deal with a one-off problem, but needn't waste mental resources storing the responses long-term. In contrast, if something happens periodically with time gaps in between - a type of food that grows seasonally, migrating predators or occasional floods, for example - the adaptive response is to create a more lasting mental record of any any relevant details as well as successful responses that we have previously used.

Similarly, the perspective that students learn better if tasks connect to their interests and social context makes a lot of sense from a survival point of view (at least for social species such as our own), as does the idea that interleaving our learning - something that would happen a lot in the natural world - is advantageous in the 'inductive learning' of patterns and rules.

The classic Zeigarnik effect - incomplete tasks being better remembered than complete ones - also fits well with a scenario where an unfinished task could be a matter of life or death.

Clearly, we can't deliver entire school courses via a grasslands scenario like the one described above. We could, however, pay more attention to the ways in which memory has evolved to work, and establish ways of building these principles into classroom tasks.


Bahrick, H. P. (2005). The long-term neglect of long-term memory: Reasons and remedies. In A.F. Healy (Ed.), Experimental Cognitive Psychology and its Applications. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Bell, R., Röer, J.P. & Buchner, A. (2015) Adaptive Memory: Thinking about function. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 41, 1038 – 1048 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000066

Kang, S. H., McDermott, K. B., & Cohen, S. M. (2008). The mnemonic advantage of processing fitness-relevant information. Memory & Cognition, 36(6), 1151-1156.

Klein, S.B. (2014). Evolution, memory and the role of self-referrant recall in planning for the future. In B.L. Schwarz, M.L. Howe, M.P. Toglia and H. Otgaar (Eds.) What is Adaptive about Adaptive Memory? pp. 11-34. Oxford: OUP.

Nairne, J. S. (2016). Adaptive Memory: Fitness-Relevant “Tunings” Help Drive Learning and Remembering. In D.C. Geary & D.B. Berch (Eds), Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education (pp. 251-269). New York: Springer.

Nairne, J. S., Thompson, S. R., & Pandeirada, J. N. (2007). Adaptive memory: survival processing enhances retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33(2), 263.

Röer, J. P., Bell, R., & Buchner, A. (2013). Is the survival-processing memory advantage due to richness of encoding?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39(4), 1294.

Soderstrom, N. C., & McCabe, D. P. (2011). Are survival processing memory advantages based on ancestral priorities?. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 564-569.

White, T. D., Asfaw, B., Beyene, Y., Haile-Selassie, Y., Lovejoy, C. O., Suwa, G., & WoldeGabriel, G. (2009). Ardipithecus ramidus and the paleobiology of early hominids. Science, 326(5949), 64-86.

Wilson, S. (2016). Divergent thinking in the grasslands: thinking about object function in the context of a grassland survival scenario elicits more alternate uses than control scenarios. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 1-13.

#Flashbulb Memory by @TeacherToolkit⤴


How good is your memory? How much can you recall from your own schooling and can you think why this has stuck with you? Context: As I get to grips with writing my second book, I have been increasing the breadth and depth of my own research and re-thinking how memory can all be applied … Okumaya devam et