Research School Network: Reflections on our improving memory training course

Reflections on our improving memory training course

by Durrington Research School
on the

On Friday last week 14 teachers from south coast schools met together at the Durrington Research School to discuss how we can improve memory in order to improve students’ performance in terminal exams.

The three-day training course had been designed around applying principles from cognitive science to the classroom, and drew on the wealth of research in this area. It was created in response to an increasing need to support students and teachers in dealing with increased content in new GCSE specifications, which together with assessment returning primarily to terminal exams, requires students to retain, and have at their disposal, large amounts of knowledge.

Our course objectives (framed as questions) were:

  1. Which teaching methods, using evidence from cognitive science, have been shown to improve memory retention and recall?
  2. How can better course and curriculum planning improve the depth and scope of student knowledge?
  3. What are the most effective revision strategies to teach our students?

The day started with delegates responding to the question:

What are the problems associated with the move to 100% terminal exams?”

The post-it answers were then arranged on to a continuum from least to most solvable within the parameters of the training programme. The results are shown below:

memory continuum

The responses uncovered that the five main areas of concern amongst the teachers in the room were:

  1. Retention
  2. Content
  3. Teaching strategies
  4. Time
  5. Stress and motivation

While cognitive science principles were less likely to affect time pressure and stress/​motivation (although this was not impossible) we felt confident that during our time together we could give many useful and practical solutions to dealing with increased content, student retention of knowledge, and which teaching methods to adopt.

Prior to attending delegates had been asked to read the Dunlosky paper: Strengthening the Student Toolbox which provides an excellent starting point for teachers looking to adapt their practice to reflect cognitive science principles. This was then developed by a directed reading activity during which delegates read and summarised key ideas from the Deans for Impact paper: The Science of Learning. This paper builds on many of the ideas within the Dunlosky paper and provides further practical applications.

Session two was more directed, with Andy Tharby delivering detailed training on the key aspects of theory that we felt teachers needed sound knowledge of in order to be able to lead and implement change to their classroom, department or school.

The starting point was how to manage the relationship between working memory and long-term memory in order to promote effective learning. He based much of this section on the Daniel Willingham book: Why Don’t Students Like School.

He then moved on to cognitive load theory focusing on the Sweller, van Merriënboer and Paas paper: Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design.

Finally, he covered the difference between learning and performance, which is discussed in the Soderstrom and Bjork paper: Learning Versus Performance.

The last part of this session concentrated more on the practical application of these theories, through the more recent work of the Learning Scientists. This work was also the focus of a recent blog that can be found here.

During session three the focus turned away from theory on to implementation. The session started with head of geography Ben Crockett explaining how the department have built on the theories of dual coding, retrieval practice and spaced practice to develop case study diagrams. He explained that the key element to the success of this strategy was how they were created and used, as much as the design of the diagrams.

Case study

Following this, delegates reflected on the content of the day and, importantly, started to sketch out an implementation plan for the coming weeks and months. These will be reviewed on day two as the course builds and develops. As with all our training programmes we aim to make them responsive, and feedback from delegates will help shape the spring session.

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