Improving students memory: a guide to the research

Zoe Benjamin

What are the key memory studies that we should consider when designing lessons?

Strategies that improve how much students remember

Zoe Benjamin from Heathfield School breaks down the key studies about student memory. Think about the implications for lesson planning and delivery, if this area is of interest be sure to look through our growing research repository.

Memory, Dunlosky et al (2013)

Retrieval practice and distributed practice (spacing) are very effective at improving long-term memory. Elaborative interrogation (asking ‘why?’ to help make connections) and interleaved practice (mixing up topics to revise rather than revising whole topics at a time) are fairly effective strategies. Highlighting, underlining and re-reading were not found to help improve long-term memory.

Use short quizzes to model spacing and interleaving. Teach students to use elaborative interrogation during revision.

Spacing Your Learning, Cepeda et al (2008)

Spacing revision is more effective than cramming, especially if you need to remember the material for a long time. The gaps between revision should increase as students get closer to the exam. The researchers proposed the following spacing schedule for retaining new information from the day it is first encountered: 3 days, 8 days, 12 days, 27 days.

Plan retrieval practice of new material and put these into your planner at spaced intervals. Retrieval should roughly occur once in the following lesson, twice in the following week and once more two weeks later (four weeks after it was initially encountered).

Spacing and Interleaving, Rohrer and Taylor (2007

Spacing out revision over a week rather than doing it in one sitting produced significantly higher test results. One week after the test, students who mixed different topics together (interleaving) during revision answered over three times more questions correctly than students who revised the material as one block at a time.

Educate students about the importance of spacing and interleaving for effective revision. Model these strategies when providing revision materials.

Revising to Music, Perham and Currie (2014)

Revising in silence produced the highest number of correct answers on a test. Revising while listening to music without lyrics produced the second highest number of correct answers. Students who listened to music with lyrics answered a third less of the questions correctly compared to the silent revision group. There was no difference between the test scores of students listening to music with lyrics that they liked and lyrics that they disliked.

Educate students about the impact that listening to music while revising has on subsequent exam performance.

Retrieval Practice, Roediger and Karpicke (2006)

Students who had one study period followed by one session of retrieval practice scored at least 30% higher when tested than students who had two study periods of reading. Retrieval practice becomes more powerful when material needs to be remembered for longer periods of time and studying by reading becomes less effective. Students rated re-reading as a more effective method of revision but subsequently scored 50% more when using retrieval practice for revision. Students reported finding retrieval practice a more interesting form of revision.

Teach students about the effectiveness of retrieval practice compared to re-reading. Use retrieval practice as starters to strengthen ideas in the long-term memory.

improving student memory

Asking Why, Pressley et al (1987)

Students remembered twice as many facts presented as sentences when they were asked a ‘why’ question relating to each sentence compared to hearing the sentences alone or hearing the sentences with an explanation.

Use elaborative interrogation (asking ‘why’) when presenting students with new facts and encourage them to use this technique themselves during revision.

Reading Out Loud, Forrin and MacLeod (2018)

The researchers compared the effectiveness of learning key terms when reading them in silence, reading them out loud, listening to a recording of yourself reading them and listening to someone else read them to you. The greatest difference in performance was between reading the words out loud and reading the words in silence. Reading out loud led to a 12% increase in performance.

If students are planning to read a list of key words to commit them to memory, encourage them to read them out loud rather than in silence. Ideally, this should be followed up by retrieval practice to improve retention.

Pictures and Words, Mayer et al (1991)

When students studied using pictures and words they were better able to apply their knowledge to different problems, situations and questions than when they studied using words alone. Verbal recall of facts was not affected by the presence of pictures. Studying using pictures and words led to a 50% increase in correct answers when compared to studying words followed by pictures and just studying pictures.

Use a combination of pictures and words when delivering new material and encourage students to use this technique during revision.

Teaching Others, Nestojko et al (2014)

Students performed better on a test when they were told they would be asked to teach the material to someone else compared to those who were told to prepare for a test. Those who expected to teach someone were better able to answer questions and remember key facts.

Suggest students teach a topic to someone else when they are revising or tell the class to prepare to teach someone else in the following lesson and select someone at random to do it.

How Much We Forget, Murre and Dros (2015)

Ebbinghaus (1880) created a forgetting curve based on studies, which showed how much new information is forgotten during the first 31 days after learning. Murre and Dros (2015) replicated these findings, showing that approximately 42% of learnt material is forgotten after just 20 minutes. However, they found that memory is better in the morning following learning than it is in the evening of the day the material was learnt (showing a boost in memory overnight). They found support for the primacy and recency effects (the first and last thing learnt are remembered more than those in the middle).

Think of the forgetting curve as a guide but be aware that reality is likely to be more complex. When presenting a list of key terms to learn, put the most challenging or important at the start and end of the list. Suggest that students do retrieval practice in the morning following a revision session the previous day.

Pre-Questions, Carpenter and Toftness (2017)

Students performed better on a test when they had been asked questions about a topic immediately before being taught it (pre-questioning). Their performance on test questions was improved when the topic matched the pre-question topic and when the topic did not match the pre-question topic compared to the performance of a group of students who were not given any pre-questions.

Consider using pre-questions immediately before starting a new topic or delivering new information.

Retrieval Practice and Stress, Smith et al (2016)

Researchers compared the effectiveness of re-reading and retrieval practice when revising for tests completed in stressful and non-stressful environments. Students using retrieval practice outperformed students using re-reading in all conditions, including retrieval practice in a stressful environment compared to re-reading in a non-stressful environment. Students who used re-reading for revision suffered the most during stressful situations whereas students using retrieval practice were not negatively affected by stress.

Convey to students ‘don’t study in order to do well at a test. Do lots of tests in order to study well.’ Help students to develop the habit of using retrieval practice for revision.

Top tips for improving student memory

Retrieval practice: any activity where students have to generate answers.

Spacing: revisiting topics little and often.

Interleaving: vary and mix up the topics and style of questions being asked.

Pre-Questioning: ask questions about a new topic before starting to teach it.

Elaborative Interrogation: ask 'why would that be the case?'

Dual Coding: combine pictures and words.

Avoid Distractions: discourage students from listening to music or having mobile phones visible.

each Someone Else: this leads to a deeper understanding and organisation in the long-term memory.