What we shouldn’t forget about memory when teaching remotely

black and white blackboard business chalkboard
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Perhaps most improvements in pedagogical thinking in the last ten years can be traced back to Willingham’s pithy phrase ‘Memory is the residue of thought’.  It might seem strange to an outsider that there was a period, even recently, when choices about lesson planning weren’t driven by prompting thought directly about what we wanted students to understand and do (but there was).  With fresh understanding, we designed and taught lessons concerned with guiding student thought… Until we couldn’t any more.

The problem is that memory is still the residue of thought but we have much less control over what students are thinking during a ‘lesson’ or when they complete an assignment.  With this problem comes the danger that we try to fill what would have been lesson time with activities and leave to chance what students are thinking about.

There is nothing wrong with students being set projects during this period – there might be all sorts of benefits from such work – but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that students will remember lots from the open-ended tasks they’re completing now.

But the reverse will also cause problems: setting activities so short and narrow in an attempt to carefully stage-manage what students are thinking will slow things down to the point of being glacially mundane.  These short tasks, if set in extreme numbers, are also likely to provide more information than we can reasonably digest and act upon.  The balance point between these extremes will be found in the context of each class and school.

Despite the issues, there are principles we can follow and opportunities which arise as we continue to teach remotely.  I read Make it Stick for the first time recently; it has nothing directly to do with remote learning but it seemed to have something to say about are particular and current problems.

Firstly, Retrieval Practice is more than Quizzing.  If the sum total of our retrieval practice is quizzing, we’re probably missing an opportunity to prompt student thought in other ways.  In some settings though – and I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone – retrieval practice has become synonymous with quizzing.  Forms of the Microsoft and Google variety (and quizzes on Show My Homework) stand offering us a shortcut to quizzing and therefore retrieval.  It would be foolish not to use them but it would be equally foolish to believe this is the only, or even the main, type of retrieval practice students complete.

Brown, Roediger and McDaniel emphasise variety when it comes to retrieval practice if you really want to have an impact on memory: ‘Retrieval practice that you perform at different times and in different contexts and that interleaves different learning material has the benefit of linking new associations to the material.’

Quizzes are quick and easy for us to create but we need to be careful they aren’t too quick and easy for students.  A quiz where the majority of students get 100% doesn’t tell us very much, and as the writers of Make it Stick point out ‘Retrieval practice that’s easy does little to strengthen learning.’

If you want something more expansive and thorough on retrieval practice without just quizzing, Aidan Severs and Tom Sherrington have written well on this topic.

Secondly, Vary as well as Spacing and Interleaving Practice.  Whether conducting work through an online platform (live or not) or sending home work packs, there is plenty of opportunity for spacing and interleaving practice, particularly on content students have already covered.

In normal times, I wear as a badge of honour my students’ regular complaint as they enter at the start of a lesson ‘Are we writing paragraphs… again!?’  I’ve seen the surliest of Year 10 groups become expert essay writers through continued practice.  But at times I’ve probably been missing a trick as students complete very similar activities.

Varied practice is effectively ‘Exposure to multiple version of a problem’ as we change the conditions and approaches to completing tasks.  Make it Stick explains that this helps us because ‘it improves your ability to transfer learning from one situation and apply it successfully to another’.

Even in the short time we’ve been teaching remotely, it can be easy to get into a routine with how we approach setting work.  A routine is useful because it will make preparing for and delivering that work a less cumbersome process.  But we should build into that routine a process which asks How have students approached this task/content/skill before?  How could I change that approach? 

Thirdly, Encourage Genuine Reflection.  Reflection is an activity I see as a bit vague (probably because I’ve often done it badly).  But Brown, Roediger and McDaniel see it as a combination of other useful practices:

Reflection can involve several several cognitive activities… that lead to stronger learning.  These include retrieval… elaboration (for example, connecting new knowledge to what you already know), and generation (for example, rephrasing key ideas in your own words or visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.

As students complete their remote work, however they’re doing this, we don’t want them to move too quickly through each area of learning or review.  In asking students to reflect, we do more to guide their focus to where we want it and get that focus to stay put for longer.

Adding in specific tasks which ask students to look back on, recall and explain what they have been working through can ensure we don’t move them on too quickly.  This could be a Form or a Pause Point at the end of a video which asks students some questions about their work but it doesn’t have to be anything too complicated.


The writers of Make it Stick are clear that the techniques I’ve mentioned and others are difficult (but desirable) and so it is worth explaining to students, during this time when everything feels difficult, why we’re teaching the way that we are.  I imagine this might be the topic of my next assembly but it should be a regular message coming through teaching that our planning, the activities we choose and the difficulties we present students with are purposeful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s