Research School Network: Research Bites: We remember what we think about

Research Bites: We remember what we think about

by Durrington Research School
on the

What does it mean?

Put simply, we will only remember something if we have paid attention to it. Lesson planning, therefore, should focus primarily on the thinking that students will do in the lesson.

What does the evidence tell us?

Daniel Willingham has written an excellent chapter on this topic in his book Why Don’t Students Like School?. For a student to remember an idea, she needs to have entertained it in her working memory – otherwise, there is no chance that it will transfer to long-term memory. Willingham also writes Things that create an emotional reaction will be better remembered, although an emotional response is not always necessary for learning.” Repetition is also less effective than we might think: we can see something countless times but not learn it. A £5 note provides a classic example of this. You may have looked at one innumerable times, but could you draw one from memory? Probably not. That’s because when you think about a £5 note you think about its value, not its appearance.

How can teachers mobilise the evidence?

  • Regularly ask questions that challenge students to think about subject material. A common misconception is that students will only learn if they have to answer hard’ questions. In actual fact, questions need not be fiendishly difficult; instead, they should allow students to think productively about the subject material.
  • Sorting, ranking, comparison and categorisation tasks are excellent ways to promote thinking.
  • Students should think always about meaning. For example, a word search is a fairly ineffective tool for teaching as it involves thinking about the letters in words, rather the meaning of words. A crossword is more effective: you have to think about a word’s meaning to solve a problem.

Further information

Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?is required reading.

This paper also summarises Willingham’s ideas.

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