inTuition taster: Total recall

Helping learners to absorb and recall information is a vital part of preparing them for exams. Kathryn Langford looks at techniques to aid sticky learning.

Assessment strategies in the further education sector have developed and changed within the past decade. Endpoint assessment in apprenticeships, the removal of AS qualifications as part of A Levels and an increase in ‘final unit exams’ for many BTECs have increased the pressure on students to produce their summative assessments independently. T Levels will also introduce new approaches, such as employer-set projects and exams for the core components. So how do teachers help learners to recall and prepare for exam windows?

graphic illustration of someone shining a light inside a large open head

During the Covid-19 pandemic, practitioners had to ‘calculate’ results from the formative assessments they had already completed with their students and base these ‘outcomes’ on known evidence.

For many teachers, this was an emotional and intense process, where their professional expertise and judgement were relied on to give valid and reliable results for the qualifications. For some, it highlighted that their future practice should include more opportunities for assessment of learning.

Ofsted, within the Education Inspection Framework for Further Education and Skills 2019, states that ‘good’ within the quality of education would demonstrate that “over the course of study, teachers design and use activities to help learners remember long-term the content they have been taught, to integrate new knowledge into larger concepts, and to apply skills fluently and independently”.


In the 1980s, new teachers learned about ‘attention span’. Today, this might be identified as ‘cognitive load’, ‘short-term memory’ or ‘working memory’. But, essentially, when readying students for assessment, we must look at how knowledge can be retained, recalled and applied. For maths and English GCSE teachers, students may be preparing for their 10th or 11th re-sit, so improving exam techniques and retrieval strategies is vital. Other learners face additional barriers to recall, such as attention deficit disorder or dyslexia, making an inclusive approach a necessity.


Sticky lyrics

So, have you ever had an ‘earworm’ (Jakubowski et al, 2017)? That repeated section of music that stays for longer than most people would like? Forgive me mentioning ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ or ‘A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh’ or ‘I can’t get you out of my head’. But what makes those melodies or lyrics ‘stick’ and why one song for some will conjure up memories or knowledge long forgotten and yet for others create no meaning at all?

Sticky learning is a buzzword in education today and has even been trademarked as an approach to a unique training method.

Gladwell (2002) argues that the method of presentation and the structure of information greatly affects the ‘stickiness’ of a message. He said you know a message is sticky when it makes an impact, when it sticks with you beyond the learning experience, and when it influences your behaviour, which is the result that most FE teachers want for their learners. Aspects of making learning stick can be explored within other educational concepts such as memory, cognitive load, spacing, retrieval and interleaving.

Mccrea (2017) talks about how memory and learning can be used to build deep, powerful and lasting understanding, so that students are more confident and independent and teachers are more informed and effective. With his nine principles of memorable teaching, he suggests that the power of long-term memory (LTM) is a function of two factors – depth and durability. To build this, we need to leverage working memory (WM), so that where LTM equals knowledge, WM equates to thinking power.

Less is more

Many FE teachers, when adapting their face-to-face teaching approaches to online or blended learning, report to have identified that ‘less is more’ when sharing information and the ‘taught’ content with students. They then move their learners from the ‘harness’ phase to active learning, where students can complete activities, direct their WM and build LTM. In the final stage, learners/students transition between presentation and practice, and learning is demystified, with learners/students assessing themselves, identifying their progress and acknowledging the actual learning process.

Memorable teaching takes time and relies on routines and frequency, which will build into successful and meaningful learning and link into other strategies and approaches for learning. Students will need structure and scaffolds to support the memorable aspects of knowledge and application of information. Many of you will have tried mnemonics to provide these frameworks, for example SohCahToa for GCSE maths (three main functions of trigonometry) or GAPS for English (genre, audience, purpose and style for analysis of written text).

Heath and Heath (2007) discuss six principles that can be identified when analysing hundreds of ‘sticky ideas’:

  • Simplicity – reducing ideas to the bare minimum or core of the idea
  • Unexpectedness – creating surprise, interest and curiosity
  • Concreteness – clarity of an idea that means the same to everyone
  • Credibility – believable, with its own credentials
  • Emotions – getting learners to care or ‘feel’ the learning
  • Stories – mental rehearsals to help responses.

To this they also add the term ‘the curse of knowledge’, which could be the seventh principle and one to avoid. For many teachers, it is that lack of awareness of what learners are thinking, and how they receive the message, that removes the impact of their ‘teaching’.

Make an impression

For many within FE who are working to motivate and engage young adults in their learning, they may need to present information that is ‘wacky’, needed or translated into terminology the students understand to make it stick. For example, Smith (2019) has created a ‘Hooks’ Padlet for maths, which contains links to images, videos and other sources of information that can stimulate discussion and intrigue students with mathematical concepts, all with the element of surprise. This resource also crosses over into other subjects.

Many FE teachers have faced frustration when asking students ‘What did we do last week?’. Sprenger (2018), like the Heaths and Mccrea, suggests ‘steps’ to enhance learning and support retention and retrieval. Her view of making memories ‘sticky’ could be completed in any order, depending on what the teacher is trying to teach.

  • Reach – getting and keeping student attention, possibly with novelty, need, motivation or emotion
  • Reflect – creating space for students to think and connect new material to previous learning
  • Recode – students take information and generate their own material
  • Reinforce – feedback to ensure the correct information has been recoded
  • Rehearse – information is practised and moved to long-term memory
  • Review – retrieve information from long-term memory into working memory
  • Retrieve – strategies to enable students to find the information they have stored in memory.

Whatever assessment strategy students are working towards, they have to understand the message, and will need information to present to examiners, processes to help them find that information in their memories, and strategies that helped them put it there in the first place, using terminology that makes sense. Unfortunately, for many learners, ‘A-weema-weh’ may be incomprehensible and instantly forgotten. Perhaps I should leave you with that earworm, or image, for those of you who can remember Top of the Pops back in 1982.

References and further reading

  • Gladwell M. (2002)The Tipping Point. Boston: Back Bay Books.
  • Heath C and Heath D. (2007)Made to Stick. London: Arrow Books.
  • Jakubowski K, Finkel S, Stewart L and Müllensiefen D. (2017) Dissecting an earworm. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts 11(2): 122-135.
  • Mccrea P.(2017)Memorable Teaching. Great Britain: Amazon Books.
  • Smith J. (2019)
  • Sprenger. (2018)

Kathryn Langford was a regional specialist lead in maths and English and is now the lead CPD trainer at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF). With thanks to Bob Read and Claire Callow, regional specialist leads in maths and English.

From inTuition 42 - winter 2020