This is a summary of some of the links on our Memory/ Retrieval page. In general, it refers to blog posts and secondary sources, and it is not (nor is it intended to be) a thorough overview of all the research that is out there. It is meant to be only a starting point for discussion (and further reading) before our meeting on 10th July.

Memory and recall

If I asked you the date of your birthday, would you be able to tell me what it is? What about your mum’s birthday? The date of Christmas Day?

And what about the Queen’s (official) birthday? The date of the General Election in 2010? The date that you broke up for the summer in 2015?

I reckon most people would be able to answer all of the first set of questions easily, but I’d wager that most people wouldn’t be able to answer the second set so readily. However, they probably would’ve known these dates at one point, or at least have been told them. So why is it we can recall some dates more easily than others?

Questions about memory, and the retrieval of items committed to memory, are interesting to teachers because we want students to remember what we’ve taught them. What’s the point of spending all that time planning, marking, tracking and teaching students, if they simply forget everything we have helped them to learn?

Storage and retrieval

The ability to store and retrieve information may be governed by how “strongly” we have stored the information within our memory in the first place. Bjork (1) distinguishes between storage strength and retrieval strength: “Storage strength reflects how entrenched or interassociated a memory representation is with related knowledge and skills, whereas retrieval strength reflects the current activation or accessibility of that representation and is heavily influenced by factors such as situational cues and recency of study or exposure.” As David Didau (2) explains, “the address of a friend you’ve been visiting for years has both high storage and retrieval strengths as we’re continually using the information. But if they suddenly move house, their new address will have low storage strength because we haven’t known it long but its retrieval strength will be quite high as we continually review the address so as not to forget it. Other information like the address we lived at as a child has high storage strength as we’ve known it forever, but low retrieval strength because we don’t think about it very often. This accounts for our frustrating inability to suddenly be unable to recall stuff we know we know.”

Spaced Practice

Spaced practice is interesting to teachers because it appears to aid memorisation. “Since Ebbinghaus (1885) first discovered that he could learn material from fewer repetitions when the repetitions were spaced apart in time rather than grouped together, the relationship between time and learning has fascinated everyone from school teachers to neurobiologists. ‘Spaced learning’… is a learning strategy in which two or more study periods are separated in time by an inter-study interval (ISI). The ISI may be as brief as ten minutes, or as long as weeks and months… Numerous reviews of cognitive experiments on spacing effects have revealed the robustness of spacing effects for simple memory tasks and motor skills. These reviews also opened up the possibility that there is an optimal spacing interval which depends on the retention interval and the complexity of the task” (3)

It’s relatively straightforward to integrate spaced practice into our teaching, because “it simply involves a change in timing, and not necessarily in materials, techniques or lesson content.” (4) And knowledge of spacing can help students themselves organise their study more effectively. “Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming… When you space your learning, you take that same amount of study time, and spread it out across a much longer period of time. Doing it this way, that same amount of study time will produce more long-lasting learning.” (5)


An idea that is linked to spaced practice is interleaving “When we introduce a time delay between studying and re-studying, other material will be covered during any class time in-between. This interleaving can have additional benefits, perhaps by helping learners to more clearly see the links and the differences between different topics or sub-topics.” (4) However, this approach is not necessarily straightforward, and students might need to be reassured and to understand why it’s worth taking, even though it can feel more difficult at the time “…blocked practice appears optimal for learning, but interleaved practice actually results in superior long-term retention and transfer of skills” (6) “This strategy is particularly useful if you’re studying something that involves problem solving – like math or physics – interleaving can help you choose the correct strategy to solve a problem… [and] help you to see the links, similarities, and differences between ideas.” (7)

Testing and quizzing

Finally, although all of this research might help us to support students to perform better in high stakes tests (leaving aside any debates about the merits of this here), it appears that the process of testing students itself can also help them to retrieve items already stored in memory. “The testing effect is a well-known psychological phenomena whereby people remember things better if they are tested on them. The benefits don’t stem just from getting feedback on right or wrong answers – although that can help too. It appears that the process of retrieving information from memory actually helps it to be consolidated. In other words, a test can make the memory more secure and less likely to be forgotten.” (8) “Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge “out” and examine what we know… Often, we think we’ve learned some piece of information, but we come to realize we struggle when we try to recall the answer. It’s precisely this “struggle” or challenge that improves our memory and learning.” (9)

The potential of retrieval practice to enhance long-term retention has led some teachers to make low-stakes quizzing a regular feature of their practice, and this approach is also supported by research: “In 8th grade science classes… Review quizzing produced the greatest increases in exam performance, and… the benefits of quizzing (relative to not quizzing) persisted on cumulative semester and end-of-year exams.” (10)

Furthermore, it appears that the benefits of retrieval practice may extend beyond the realm of simply recalling facts. “… practising retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping… The advantage of retrieval practice occurred even when the criterial test involved creating concept maps… Retrieval practice is an effective tool to promote conceptual learning about science.” (11)

Questions to consider

  • Are you convinced by the research that suggests spaced practice, interleaving and retrieval practice are worth integrating into practice?
  • What has been missed here?
  • Do you currently apply any of this research to your practice?
  • What hurdles need to be overcome when applying this research to your practice?



Further links