Why don’t students remember what they’ve learned?

Many students will tell us they have ‘spent hours learning material’ but in stressful situations they cannot recall it. At Brampton College we ask A level students to revise for tests regularly because we believe it is an important part of the learning process. This interesting article on the research of cognitive scientists, Dan Willingham and Robert Bjork, which explains how memory works, tells us why regular revision and revisiting topics helps to embed learning.

We encourage our students to spend sufficient time on complex ideas, focusing on specific concepts. They need to revisit them often, apply them regularly and look at past A level exam questions until they eventually master the ideas. It is true the more students understand the less they have to learn by rote so they have more working memory for the facts and figures they do need to learn.

In the article Willingham makes some suggestions to help students learn:
  • Distributing practice (rather than cramming): ‘it is virtually impossible to become proficient at any mental task without extended, dedicated practice distributed over time.’
  • Overlearning: keep pupils learning after they know the material to prevent forgetting: ‘a good rule of thumb is to put in another 20 percent of the time it took to master the material’.
  • Testing frequently: testing students frequently helps them remember material.
Bjork makes similar suggestions:
  • Spacing (rather than massing) practice: information that is presented repeatedly over spaced intervals is learned much better than information that is repeated without intervals.
  • Interleaving: although people think that they learn better when content is blocked, rather than interleaved, people actually learn content better when it is interleaved with other content.
  • Testing: using our memory improves our memory: the act of retrieval helps us remember the things we recall. When information is successfully retrieved from memory, its representation in memory is changed such that it becomes more recallable in the future (Bjork, 1975); and this improvement is often greater than the benefit resulting from additional study (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).
Our teachers regularly encourage our students to plan their learning well. As our students are encouraged to prepare for their mocks we want to reinforce these ideas as they make their plans so that they learn well.