Have you ever had a conversation like this with another teacher?
Teacher 1: My class don’t remember anything. I taught them how to use the present perfect yesterday and now they don’t remember it at all. It’s like it never happened!
Teacher 2: That happens to me all the time, the kids just forget everything.
Conversations like this, and similar ones, have been commonplace in every education setting I’ve worked in over the last decade. Often with very skillful and dedicated teachers just accepting that this is the way it is and there’s nothing they can do about it. I know this because for a while I was one of them – albeit one with a lingering frustration at my lack of ability to make the learning ‘stick’. This motivated me to find the reasons behind this and a solution… and I didn’t need to look far.
Why do pupils forget?
There are evidence based, scientific explanations for the above phenomenon and approaches to solve it.
Pupils forgetting the material is simply that, forgetting, and it is not their fault. In fact, it is to be expected and a natural part of the way our memory works (or doesn’t work) – see Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve below. In teaching terms the process we can plan for and enact to prevent this forgetting and improve recall of information is called ‘Retrieval Practice‘ – which refers to the act of recalling learned information from memory, and each time that information is retrieved it makes the memory stronger.
The starting point for us as teachers is the realisation that rather than thinking ‘I’ve taught them something, they should know it‘, we could instead be thinking ‘I’ve taught them something, how can I ensure they don’t forget it’. This small but important change in approach can have a profound impact on learning. Research by Ebbinghaus suggests that over 50% of what pupils learn is forgotten by the following day, or at least the information cannot be retrieved from their memory. This is shown in the graph below by the green line. This study has been replicated many times more recently showing similar results.
If we now know this is the case, then surely we should plan for it? That’s where retrieval practice comes in.
Multiple studies (see Roediger & Butler) have demonstrated that using retrieval practice can have a positive impact on learning and improve exam results. Before I go on, I just want to take a moment to quickly explain how memory works as it is important in understanding all of this.
Putting it simply, we take in our surroundings and anything which is deemed important or new gets processed into our short term memory. Everything else is dismissed. That’s why you don’t remember what colour shirt someone is wearing (unless that fact is important to you). The short-term memory has limited space and can only hold onto information for a limited time. For something to be remembered it needs to move into the long-term memory and for this to happen it needs to be rehearsed and retrieved multiple times. When this happens, a permanent change occurs in the long-term memory and the information can potentially be stored forever. As teachers, this is what we should be aiming for when teaching a new concept – a permanent change in the brains of our pupils. Unfortunately, what we often settle for at the end of the lesson is checking if pupils have stored the information in their short-term memory; this explains why the information has been ‘forgotten’ when we ask the pupils about it at a later date.
How can we support retention of information?
Utilising retrieval practice supports pupils in moving their learning into their long-term memory and in doing so retain the information. To implement this, teachers should aim to complete a daily retrieval activity, which should only take about 5 – 10 minutes. It’s an activity that can be ready as the pupils arrive and, once they are familiar with the process, many can be started without an explanation from the teacher.
A vital part of retrieval activities is that it is the pupils doing the work. Little or no information should be given by the teachers. In this way retrieval involves pulling information out of the pupils, rather than pushing it in. It is this action that is pivotal to the learning. Many teachers focus on pushing information into pupil’s brains, very few on pulling it out, but it is the combination of both that enhances long-term learning.
Many of the examples below come from my own class – a primary school setting – but could easily be adapted to focus on one of the core EFL areas of vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation.
Pupils write down whatever information they can remember based on the picture clue relating to the topic – great for vocabulary and remembering key facts or events from a reading.
Show at the beginning of the lesson on the board. Questions can be anything you want to review from the previous lessons. Give the pupils a time limit and then share answers in a class discussion. This is also a great opportunity for practicing speaking skills with a real purpose.
Ask or display questions or use interactive sites (I like to use the ‘Gameshow’ feature on Wordwall). Pupils write their answers on the mini white boards.
– Countdown to everyone showing answers at the same time (5, 4, 3, 2, 1 show) – this prevents copying, ensures you can assess everyone’s answer simultaneously and also highlights anyone who hasn’t been able to answer immediately for further support.
– Focus on different answers and correct misunderstandings.
– Ask “Why did you say that?” or “How did you know that?” to dig even deeper.
These review recent and previous learning in one task. Give more points for older work and less points for new work. The aim is for pupils score as many points as possible in the time limit by answering the questions. Visit this website for more templates.
No doubt we all have our favourites. Currently my class are obsessed with using Blooket due to the gamifying element, but Quizizz and Kahoot are also consistent favourites. These are easy to plan and you can re-use existing quizzes / pre-made ones. When completed, be sure to focus on common errors and explain misunderstandings or challenge pupils to do it again but get 100%. Flippity is also a great way to make your own deck of flashcards from a Google spreadsheet.
Give pupils a raffle number as they enter the classroom. They have to answer the question for that number displayed on the board. They can swap with a partner if they finish theirs or could choose another to answer. Afterwards, share the answers together and focus on any misunderstandings.
Ask the pupils to list as many things as they can about a certain topic within a time limit. For example:
- 1 minute – write as many words related to ‘sports’ as possible
- 3 minutes – write present simple verbs and their corresponding past tense (ir)regular verbs
- 5 minutes – write sentences using the present perfect
Throwback Thursday/Flashback Friday
Pupils write 5 or 10 questions about what they have learned this lesson or this week and their answers to those questions on a separate sheet. Teacher checks they are correct. The following week return the questions to the pupil to see if they can still answer them correctly, or you could give to different pupils as a quiz.
There are many more activities and methods to use. Many of the ones mentioned in this blog come from the fantastic book ‘Retrieval Practice’ by Kate Jones (reviewed here) and I would absolutely recommend getting yourself a copy of it if this is something you would like to know more about.
A few take away points to remember about retrieval practice:
1. The success of retrieval practice is not anecdotal – it is based on research in cognitive science.
2. Pupils will likely forget more than 50% of what we teach them if we don’t help them remember and support their retrieval of information.
3. Retrieval practice is not just rote learning and tests – there are a lot of fun activities to support retrieval. This post has only mentioned a handful.
Good luck if you try any of these out and I hope next time you hear teachers commenting on how pupils are always forgetting you can now share the reason for it and some solutions to try in the classroom!
Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K. W., & Spence, J. T. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2).
Ebbinghaus, H. (1962). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology. New York: Dover.
Jones, K. (2019) Retrieval Practice: Research and Resources for Every Classroom. John Catt.
Roediger III, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20-27