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Helping pupils to remember

While we process information in our working memory, our long-term memory is where knowledge is stored. It is thought that the long-term memory changes and expands as pupils integrate new ideas with existing knowledge. However, that does not mean that we remember everything that we process in our working memory. Over time, the chances of forgetting a memory increase.

Understanding how information is stored in the long-term memory can help you plan how to effectively retrieve and practise key knowledge. This next section is going to look at the storage system of the long-term memory, also called ‘mental models’.

Mental models

When the mind is presented with new information, it searches the long-term memory for any prior knowledge that will support the understanding and processing of the concept. If the mind finds some useful knowledge to support the working memory, then the newly acquired knowledge is added to an ever-growing web of information around this topic. We refer to these interconnected webs as ‘mental models’, or you may hear them referred to as ‘schemata’.

The diagrams below represent two mental models. The dots represent pieces of information and the lines represent links between them. The first diagram shows a well-developed, organised mental model of a topic. When a new piece of information is added, it will be processed and understood in relation to the existing information and links.

Where the mental model is less developed (diagram 2), the knowledge may exist in isolation. Where this is the case, the information is less embedded into memory, meaning that it is weaker and more likely to be forgotten. It is also much more likely to be misunderstood, and in turn, it is likely that misconceptions will develop around the information.

Diagram showing evenly spaced and connected dots representing a well-developed and organised mental model of a topic.
Diagram 1
Diagram showing an uneven spacing of dots with some connections missing, resulting in some isolated dots. This represents a less developed mental model of a topic.
Diagram 2

The information organised into diagram 1 will be more securely stored in the long-term memory, and pupils will be able to recall it more quickly when needed. Not only will this help with a pupil’s ability to process new information, but secure subject knowledge will support with the levels of engagement and motivation experienced by the pupil. When a pupil understands what is being taught to them quickly, feels confident in giving answers, and experiences success, this will likely lead to an increase in confidence, motivation and enjoyment in the learning. It is therefore important to think carefully about the key knowledge and foundational concepts that you want pupils to master before moving on, ensuring that pupils have secure prior knowledge to which they can link their learning.

So, what can you do as a teacher to help pupils develop an organised mental model around a topic, and ensure that the knowledge held within it is not forgotten? The next section looks at ways of strengthening the recall of knowledge.

Strengthening the recall of knowledge

How quickly a piece of knowledge can be recalled when needed depends on two factors:

  1. Its retrieval strength - retrieval strength refers to how easily you can retrieve a piece of knowledge from your working memory. As a teacher, you want knowledge to have a high retrieval strength, so that your pupils can recall facts easily.
  2. Its storage strength - storage strength is how embedded or connected a memory is in your mind. As a teacher you want knowledge to have a high storage strength so that the memory does not fade over time.

Your aim would be to support pupils to have knowledge that has a high retrieval strength and a high storage strength. This means that pupils would be quick to recall knowledge when asked a question about it (high retrieval strength), and would be able to remember it in two months’ time when they needed to use the knowledge again (high storage strength).

An example of a memory that has high retrieval and high storage strength is your current address. Regardless of when or where you were asked for your address, you would be able to tell someone what it was without hesitation.

Diagram displaying the relationship between retrieval and storage strength. With the bottom of both scales resulting in knowledge that is not easily retrieved and not easily retained. The top of both scales resulting in knowledge that is easily retrieved and easily retained.

Retrieval practice in action

Retrieval of prior learning - Early Years

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Retrieval of prior learning - Early Years [AD]

Retrieval of prior learning - Primary - Alanah Harris at Reach Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Retrieval of prior learning - Primary - Alanah Harris at Reach Academy [AD]

Retrieval of prior learning – Secondary – Phil Fowkes at Reach Academy

If you require an audio description over the video, please watch this version: Retrieval of prior learning – Secondary – Phil Fowkes at Reach Academy [AD]

In the classroom you may teach a lesson on a concept or topic and assess it at the end of the lesson with a large success rate. A couple of weeks later, the same assessment is likely to lead to a much lower success rate, as the memory has moved from being highly retrievable to less so. The memory that the pupils have of the learning had an initially high retrieval strength, but it was not thoroughly embedded in the long-term memory and therefore had a low storage strength.

The question for teachers is, how do you create a memory that is high storage and has a high retrieval rate, effectively converting thinking into long-term learning?

To answer this, let’s go back and consider why your current address might be easily retrieved and easily retained. The answer is because of the number of times you have repeated it, how often you have recalled it into your working memory, and how many times you have practised writing it down or explaining it to someone. You have recalled this information many times, increasing the storage strength, so that when asked, you can retrieve the information in a flash.

This principle should be applied to the learning of any key knowledge or concepts that you want your pupils to retain. It is important that you build in regular time in your lessons for pupils to practise and repeat what has been previously taught, retrieving the critical knowledge from their long-term memory. If you do not build in this additional practice, the knowledge will become weak, and pupils will not be able to recall the information when it is needed. Throughout this Early Career Framework course, you will see this principle in action: concepts are purposefully returned to in order to increase the retrieval and storage strength in your long-term memory and help you embed them as part of your everyday teaching practice.

In the next section we will explore effective strategies that will support the retrieval of key information.


Have you experienced your pupils showing a high retrieval rate at the end of the lesson but low storage rate when you returned to the concept later in the term?

What was the context?

Did it affect all pupils equally?

Building mental models

In this section we will explore strategies for how you can support the recall and retrieval of knowledge and build well-developed mental models in pupils to support deeper understanding of concepts and topics.

Strategy 1: Building on prior knowledge

Session 1 of this module looked at the importance of linking new learning to pupils’ prior knowledge as a strategy to avoid overloading the working memory. The importance of doing this is highlighted further in this section by recognising that building on prior knowledge also leads to a more developed mental model. This means that when a new piece of information is added to the model, it will be processed and understood in relation to the existing information. The more linked the knowledge is within the mental model, the more likely it is for the pupil to retain the information.

It is important to note that for most topics taught in schools, pupils will come with an existing mental model. This model, however, may be small or unorganised, and will most likely contain large knowledge gaps and misconceptions. This makes your pupils novices in the concepts and knowledge to be learned. As the teacher, you will have a relatively developed mental model in the topic, making you an expert. This is an important distinction, as novices and experts think and learn about concepts in a different way. For novices, the gaps in knowledge need to be identified and content explicitly taught so that the teacher can be sure that strong foundations are in place, and mental models can develop in an organised way. Lessons should be sequenced carefully so that the foundational knowledge around a concept is secure, before encountering more complex content. Where this does not happen, the teacher may be building on unstable foundations, leading to further misconceptions later. As an expert in the topic, it is easy for teachers to underestimate the amount of explicit teaching and practice required for what may appear a relatively simple concept. An expert can quickly absorb and make sense of new information, hanging it on existing knowledge. However, for novice learners to process information into their long-term memory takes considerable teaching, practice and revisiting.

Strategy 2: Spaced exposition and practice

A further way to support the recall and retrieval of knowledge and build a well-developed mental model is through spaced exposition and practice. Spaced practice means that opportunities to review information previously taught are integrated into the curriculum at spaced intervals.

Studies have shown that pupils remember much more when they have been exposed to information on two occasions, rather than just one (Pashler et al, 2007). Spacing practice increases the storage and retrieval strength of the information, making it more readily recalled into the working memory for problem solving.

Here is an example of a medium-term plan for Year 9 History. The teacher has thought carefully about the sequence in which the knowledge will be introduced to pupils. Within the plan they have also outlined what the spaced practice focus will be each week. You can see that the topic ‘The Treaty of Versailles’ will be covered a total of three times, ensuring a better chance of high storage and retrieval strength and a more developed mental model around this topic.

KS4 History Medium Term Plan

Strategy 3: Retrieval practice

The final strategy is to use retrieval practice to support the automatic recall of key knowledge. Retrieval practice is different from simply revisiting the material. Instead, pupils are asked to recall knowledge from their memory. Some levels of forgetting are inevitable; however, forgetting some of the information and then trying to recall it actually strengthens the eventual learning. Creating regular opportunities in lesson time for pupils to recall information from previous lessons will support them to build long-term memory and will allow you as the teacher to check what pupils are remembering, and if any misconceptions have developed.

An effective method of providing retrieval opportunities is through low-stakes quizzes. These are simple to create, quick for the pupils to complete, and the answers can be shared immediately for instant feedback. It also allows you to draw questions from the previous lesson, or further back in the unit.

An example of a simple low-stakes retrieval quiz can be found below. As you can see, it focuses thinking on the key knowledge that the teacher wants pupils to recall.

Low-stakes retrieval quiz

Retrieval practice – Lee Donaghy at Teach First

Listen again to teacher Lee Donaghy talk about how he used retrieval practice to secure knowledge into the pupils’ long-term memory.

Video transcript

Further on in my teaching of the module ‘USA 1945-75’ with my year 10 GCSE history class, we came to focus on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. When completing their assessments on the previous topic of the Red Scare, many of my pupils had struggled to recall and therefore use their contextual knowledge when answering questions as I had not been systematic enough in my use of retrieval. I reflected that I therefore needed to be more systematic both in identifying the key items of knowledge in this new topic that would underpin pupils’ understanding, and in my use of regular retrieval practice throughout the topic to encode this knowledge in their long-term memories.

The main resource I used to teach this Civil Rights topic was the course textbook, which had a series of double page spreads, similar to this one, focused on a key aspect of the movement. The bulk of time in the first lesson on each aspect was taken up reading one of these spreads, and highlighting, clarifying and summarising the events, people and concepts described. Therefore, I selected the key knowledge I wanted pupils to retain from these spreads when planning lessons, cross-referencing this with the exam specification’s ‘specific content’ to ensure I was selecting the most important information.

I could then write a set of low-stakes quiz questions for each aspect of the topic, which in this example was the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education that led to segregation in schools in the USA being declared unconstitutional. After the first lesson on this aspect I set these questions as homework for the pupils to revise. Each subsequent lesson on this aspect then began with the same 10-15 questions. As you can see, the questions are quite detailed and only require short answers. This, combined with asking them in the same order each time, initially provided support for pupils to experience a high success rate when retrieving this information.

The impact of this was clear, as you can see from this record of pupils’ scores in the quizzes. I set the expectation that pupils would master 100% of this content during the sequence of lessons on this particular aspect, re-testing specific pupils at break times and lunch times if necessary.

Once this content was mastered, I was keen to ensure both that pupils retained it beyond the specific sequence of lessons in which they had learnt it, and that I increased the challenge with practice and retrieval as their knowledge became more secure. To do this, I collapsed the knowledge covered in the original 10 quiz questions into a single task, which I asked pupils to complete at the end of two separate lessons on the next aspect of the topic, which was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This task is less scaffolded than the set of quiz questions, requiring them to select independently the items of knowledge that would form the list of main events of the Brown vs. Board case.

Secondly, to increase the challenge further, once we had covered the entire sequence of events that made up the campaign for civil rights in the 1950s, I prompted pupils to recall the main events of the entire decade on a single timeline. This both increased the amount of knowledge pupils were asked to retrieve and again forced them to select and sequence a series of events independently.

The effect of this use of retrieval was obvious in pupils’ performance in their subsequent assessment. Where previously pupils used little contextual knowledge in their answers, now they were able to draw on the knowledge of events, people and concepts securely stored in their long-term memory. The highlighted yellow text represents the specific contextual knowledge used by the same pupil in their previous assessment on the left, when little or no systematic retrieval was used, and in their post-retrieval assessment on the right. And this effect was clear on the whole class level too as the average pupil assessment score increased from around 45% in the assessment with little or no retrieval, to just over 60% in the two assessments where retrieval was employed.

As pupil knowledge became more secure, Lee began to increase the challenge of the retrieval practice by asking pupils to instead apply their knowledge to a task. With the knowledge held within the mental model now being so secure, he felt confident that the pupils could create new links to strengthen the model further.

Developing a well-curated retrieval quiz is something you will explore with your mentor during your next training session.

As pupils become more secure in their knowledge and their mental model becomes more developed, you should be able to increase the intervals between the spaced practice and increase the level of challenge of the retrieval task.


Look at the medium-term plan for either your current or an upcoming unit of work.

Using the knowledge and examples shared in this session as a guide, build small opportunities into your plan for spaced practice and retrieval practice to strengthen pupils’ long-term memory.

This will be used as part of your next training session, where you will share elements of your plan and your rationale behind them.

If you have already included opportunities for spaced and retrieval practice into your planning documents, prepare to discuss your answers to the following questions at your next training session:

  • where have you incorporated spaced practice and why?
  • where have you incorporated retrieval practice and why?

Research into how pupils learn

When you entered the teaching profession, you came with your own established mental model of what ‘teaching’ and ‘how pupils learn’ looked like. The content of this module may be building on prior knowledge in your mental model, and you may feel confident to apply the content directly to your practice with the support of your mentor. Alternatively, the content may be new learning, and you feel that there will be some retrieval of the concepts needed. You will have the opportunity to speak to your mentor weekly about the knowledge covered in this module and attend two training sessions that look in more detail at elements of the key knowledge.

The aim of this module is to share with you the most recent research on how pupils learn best. It is important to acknowledge that claims of strategies based on the mind and how pupils learn are not new. In the recent past, some of these strategies have not been based on robust evidence, resulting in teacher practice that does not always have maximum impact for pupils. However, some of these strategies may be very familiar to you and your colleagues, and they may even be established in your mental model of what a ‘teacher’ does.

Mental models – Benjamin Riley

Listen again to Ben Riley, CEO of Deans for Impact, talking about why it is important for teachers to have a mental model that contains knowledge of research-driven teaching methods, and how to work with your colleagues to implement these into the wider school practice.

Video transcript

Hi, I’m Benjamin Riley, the founder of Deans for Impact, and today I want to talk about mental models. So what does that mean? My friend the cognitive scientist, Dan Willingham, once said:

“Every teacher, whether implicitly or explicitly, has a theory of how students learn”

And when we talk about what a mental model is, it’s the model that a teacher has in their head of what’s happening with a student when they’re being taught, and what it is they think is taking place inside the student’s head. So, there are an awful lot of different mental models that one can have and unfortunately, there’s a mental model that many people have, both educators and the general populous, that isn’t very well supported. I want you to sit down for this because a lot of folks feel very passionately about this. The theory is the theory of learning styles. The idea is commonplace that we have preferences in how we learn and that we actually learn better if information is presented to us in our so-called preferred learning style. So, for example, some people feel passionately that they’re visual learners – they need to see things in order to learn. Others feel strongly that they’re audio learners and they prefer to listen. And still, others think that they kinaesthetic learners, that they learn more if they move around while information is presented. Here’s the thing…we’ve studied this idea, not just once, not just twice, but over and over again, and as far as we can tell, from a scientific perspective, there’s very little support that presenting information to a pupil in their preferred style actually makes them learn any more. It’s been empirically studied, it’s been tested and it’s just found to be lacking. It’s not a very powerful or useful mental model as a teacher and yet it’s commonplace. So, what to do about this? Well, as it turns out, we do have other theories of learning, informed by science and other components that we can put in our mental model that are likely to be more effective. Here’s just one:

It turns out that presenting information to pupils in multiple ways, which is called dual coding, is an effective way to present information and is more likely for that information to be retained. So, if you’re a novice teacher starting your career and you happen to run into a veteran teacher who feels passionately about learning styles, what I would suggest you not do, is say “Hey! I watched a video once which said you’re wrong!” – that won’t go down very well. But instead, you might say: “Well you know, I’ve actually investigated this idea around dual coding, which is similar but a little bit different and I wonder if we might explore that together because I think it’s important to present information to students in a variety of ways. Sure, they may say they have preferences; visually, audio, but I actually think it’s a matter of equitable instruction and make sure that they, that all students get all the information all ways. And let’s talk about perhaps ways in which we can do that together”. What you’re doing here is trying to not just debunk someone’s mistaken mental model but build a new mental model with your fellow teachers, and for yourself, that is more likely to work with students. After all, that’s really what educating is, it’s not about disabusing people of mistaken notions so much as it is building up new knowledge and doing so effectively.

So, I hope that this brief chat about mental models will help you do that, and I hope it will help you to think about how it is your students best think and learn.