Last reviewed 6 March 2018

Andrea Mapplebeck discusses ideas designed to help students recall by making them forget!

The expanded curriculum

I work a lot of the time supporting educators and one of the things many talk to me about on a regular basis in the amount of content they now have to cover in the new curriculum. Not only is there more content than previously but there is also a larger amount of factual recall information required. In physics, for example, one of the requirements of the new GCSE is for students to recall 23 equations (four of which are the same physics ideas written in different ways). This increased amount of lower level content is causing additional pressure and stress for both teachers and their students.

Building memory

Wanting to help those I support, I went off to investigate how we can better help the students remember the factual information they need to be able to recall and draw on correctly if they are going to perform better, with some of the more difficult concepts and phenomena required of them within the different subject areas they study. What I found out was very interesting, in addition to the rote learning drills that some of my teachers used when I was a student (I can still recite the periodic table, a skill now mostly utilised during pub quizzes!), there are a number of different ways we can support students to better help them remember the information they will need to draw on; one such approach is referred to as Spaced Repetition.

Spaced Repetition — remembering more of what you learn

One of the mistakes students sometimes make when revising is that they spend too much time in one sitting, working on an idea rather than spacing out their revision over a longer time period. There have been many studies that have shown that it is better for building memory to space out shorter learning periods over days rather than spending larger amounts of time on a topic in one sitting. It appears that by spacing out studying you can actually learn more in less time; it truly is about working smarter and not harder (for more information look up the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve). For the brain, “work involving higher mental functions, such as analysis and synthesis, needs to be spaced out to allow new neural connections to solidify” (Howard, 2014, p.283). This then allows the brain to “glue” together ideas and make better connections in order to build understanding. If this does not occur, then the brain will drive out old learning for new if insufficient time is allowed between. Again this can be an issue for students who are now facing linear exams where they need to be able to recall and use information over a much longer time period. Students cram for an in-school assessment designed to help them build their understanding, unfortunately soon after the test the students forget everything that they learned. One approach that can support students to build memory over the longer term is known as the Leitner Method. It helps by both spacing out students’ learning and also concentrating their efforts on working on the areas that they are weaker in.

The Leitner Method

One way I have used the Leitner Method with both students and teachers is by creating flashcards. The first thing is for the students to make their own flashcards. It is important that they do this for themselves so they start to personalise and build meaning. On one side of the card they only draw images, then on the reverse they put down all of the information they think is relevant to that idea. So for learning the physics equation for power, I may draw a muscular arm bulging on one side and on the reverse write out “equals work done divided by time taken” and add details of the units associated with all the different components. I continue adding to my flashcard pile, that I call “Pile 1”, as I work through my allocated learning time. What happens next is the most important part. I sit and look at my flashcard image and see if I can remember everything I put on the reverse. If I can recall all of the information then I move the card into the next pile which I call “Pile 2”. If I cannot remember all of the information then I add an additional image to the front of the card and it remains in “Pile 1”. The following day I only go through and test myself on cards in “Pile 1” and repeat the process, moving cards to “Pile 2” or adding images and keeping them in “Pile 1”. I return to “Pile 2” cards two days after and if I can recall them I move them into a new pile called “Pile 3” which I review at less frequent intervals. The table below gives an idea of when to revisit each pile.

Flashcard Pile

Frequency of Testing

Pile 1

Daily

Pile 2

Every other day

Pile 3

Every week

Pile 4

Every other week

Pile 5

Review before test

If at any point I forget what is on the reverse of the flashcard, then I add an image and that cards moves immediately back up into “Pile 1”. Students keep creating flashcards throughout the course as and when they feel they need. By using flashcards in this way, students can space out their learning, helping them to build stronger memories, as well as aiding them to focus more often with facts/ideas that they forget. If you would like further information on the Leitner Method, then I recommend watching the YouTube clip referenced below. Happy memory building, I am off to relax and swot up for the next pub quiz — Group III — Boron, Aluminium, Gallium, Indium, Thallium …

Further information

  • The Most Powerful Way to Remember What You Study, Frank, T (2016) retrieved from www.youtube.com
  • The Owner’s Manual for the Brain: The Ultimate Guide to Peak Mental Performance at all Ages, Howard, P J (2014). New York: Harper Collins