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Teaching for long term learning

By Atom | Nov 17, 2022, 3:25 PM


Teacher Victoria Morris shares her strategies for teaching to support long term learning.

Recently, there has been an increased focus on ensuring that students remember what they have been taught, particularly in the wider curriculum. As teachers our main focus should be on student learning – if students cannot remember the most important information from a lesson, have they learnt it?

Ofsted consider that pupils make progress if they ‘know more, remember more and are able to do more’, and expect teachers to ‘deliver the subject curriculum in a way that allows pupils to transfer key knowledge to long-term learning.’ So what strategies can we use to help children transfer knowledge to their long-term memory?

In this article, I'll explain some general principles across two areas: planning, and lesson activities.

Planning for success

Look for opportunities to revisit teaching and build on students' prior knowledge when you are completing long and medium-term planning. This could take the form of:

  • Making sure you know what children have learnt in previous year groups that is relevant to the units you will be teaching, and incorporating activities to retrieve this learning into part or all of the first lesson on the new unit.

  • Organising learning in a logical sequence across the school year, so that each new idea or piece of learning builds on what has come before.

  • Search for links, both between different units in the same subject, or across subjects, and taking advantage of these opportunities to retrieve prior learning.

  • Considering whether certain units may be more challenging for pupils to learn due to them introducing completely new vocabulary and concepts, and looking for opportunities to prime children for this learning earlier in the year (for example, reading picture books about animals migrating before teaching a geography unit on migration).

The simple concept of forgetting and remembering is necessary to strengthen memories and recall information in the future. The more attempts we have at retrieving a memory, the more likely we are to retain it. Therefore, explicitly planning opportunities in your teaching to revisit key knowledge across the year is a valuable way of ensuring children have sufficient attempts to retrieve it.

Retrieval practice and long term memory

So what can we do in lessons to support students with transferring new knowledge to their long term memory?

Firstly, think carefully about the types of activity you use in lessons where you are introducing new topics or ideas. Activities should be chosen because they will help students to think hard about the most vital information you want them to learn. It’s important to put yourself in the child’s position when planning the lesson, and try to imagine what they might think most about during the tasks you have chosen.

For example, there’s nothing wrong with cutting and sticking, and practising scissor skills is important. However, if the purpose of the task is to help children remember new vocabulary, is a cutting and sticking activity going to result in more thought going into the meanings of the words, or how to use the scissors, whether they still have all the right pieces of paper and the glue that’s stuck to their fingers? Lots of quickfire questions followed by an independent task where children have to use each word more than once is likely to be more effective.

Secondly, to what extent are you ensuring that every child in the class is thinking hard about what you want them to learn? There are a variety of strategies that can be used to keep the whole class engaged during lesson input:

  • Answering questions using thumbs up/in the middle/down

  • Answering questions with number answers by holding up the correct number of fingers

  • Answering multiple choice questions by holding up a number of fingers (eg. 1 for option a, 2 for option b or 3 for option c)

  • The whole class calls out the answer on a given signal

  • Cold-calling (Giving the question and pausing before you point at someone to answer so that everyone has to think about the answer first)

  • Use of mini-whiteboards

Finally, it’s important to build retrieval practice into every lesson, both to recall prior learning, and provide sufficient practice of new learning.

Classroom activities to boost retention

A useful strategy for recalling prior learning can be to start each lesson with a ‘do now’ – a short task completed by the whole class that requires them to remember something they have already learnt. These could range from a few questions to answer in one of the ways described above, to maths fact practice, a paragraph to read and answer questions on or a short paragraph to write.

The key is that the task requires children to link prior learning, promoting retrieval. If it is self-marked as a class straightaway, this provides a useful review and assessment tool for children who may have forgotten as well.

The subject of the ‘do now’ could be related to the content of the main lesson, or it could be practising learning from previous lessons. What is important is that over time, children are required to retrieve each key piece of information frequently enough to transfer it to their long-term memory.

It's important to incorporate plenty of practice into your resources and lessons. Again there are a variety of tasks that can be used for this, dependent on the subject and the learning you want the children to rehearse:

  • Students quizzing each other in pairs – this could be from a knowledge organiser, atlas, textbook, glossary or other resources

  • Breaking down new learning into small chunks, with an independent practice task after each chunk of input

  • Timed practice tasks (eg. Write as many times tables questions as possible in two minutes, how many adverbs can you write in one minute?)

  • Games – although make sure the instructions aren’t so complicated that they distract from the learning

  • Regular practice of key facts, vocabulary and knowledge to automaticity – through a variety of quick activities eg. Games, timed practice, paired quizzing, mind maps or concept maps, quick questions

  • Quickfire questions answered in the ways described above

I hope this overview of how to teach for long-term learning has been useful. The key takeaway – always focus on the learning. Decisions should be made based on what will ensure that the whole class is thinking hard about the key information and ideas you want them to learn in that lesson. Then ensuring that the learning is frequently revisited over time can support long term memory for life.

Working memory

This can be thought of as the "mind's eye" - it allows us to store and manipulate information for a short term. Can you add 48 and 63 in your head? This is your working memory in action. There is significant overlap with short term memory, however, working memory is used to execute a task.

Cognitive load theory

The theory that our working memory only has a small capacity. When you try to exceed that capacity, for example by attempting to process too much information at once, or handling too many tasks, you will experience cognitive overload. Avoiding cognitive overload is an important part of long term learning.

Retrieval practice

A technique that asks learners to recall knowledge or ideas without support. Studies have shown moderate but positive improvement when compared with no recap. Low stakes tests or quizzes such as true/false questions, image recognition, and multiple choice questions are all examples of retrieval practice.


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