3. Instruction for memory

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Helena Moore

A key goal for all teachers is to help their pupils to learn and remember what they learn. The good news is that we know a lot about how learning works and the role that memory plays. Memory is an important factor in learning. It affects our ability to pay attention to something, to remember it, and to use it. Teachers need to know about the role that memory plays in learning and design lessons that maximize its potential.

Presenter main

Understanding a bit about how our memories work can help us to make better decisions in our teaching. Whilst there’s still a lot that we don’t know, cognitive scientists have learned a huge amount about how our brains process and store information. Teachers need to know this too. The following simple model of memory, devised by Professor of Psychology, Daniel Willingham, can tell us a lot about how learning works.

The model starts with the environment. There are thousands of things in the environment that you could pay attention to. You might pay attention to the sound of my voice. You might hear a noise outside. You might notice your mobile phone, but you can only pay attention to a small number of things at once. And it’s only the small number of things that you pay attention to that enter into your working memory. Working memory is where conscious, effortful thinking takes place, and we use our working memory all of the time. If I gave you some numbers to add up in your head, you’d have to hold onto one number whilst adding on the other. You’d be using your working memory. But working memory has a very limited capacity. It can only hold onto around four chunks of information at once, and if you bombard working memory with too much information, it can’t hold onto it. But assuming you’ve paid attention to something, and your working memory has been able to process the information, it should lay down a trace in your long-term memory. And this trace is the beginning of a change in long-term memory, and learning is a change in your long-term memory.

But long-term memory doesn’t just sit there passively, it’s not like files gathering dust in a filing cabinet. It actively supports your working memory when you’re trying to learn new information. What you have in your long-term memory helps you to hold onto more information in your working memory. It also helps you to know what to pay attention to. If you know the recipe for spaghetti carbonara, then you’ll be able to spot the ingredients in your cupboard more easily when you see them.

One important thing to bear in mind is that we easily forget information. Within minutes or hours, we will lose the detail of the new information that we’ve learned, so we need lots of opportunities to come back to it, to actively retrieve that information from our long-term memory, so that we can make the information stick.

Now that we’ve established a basic understanding of how memory works, we can think about how we might teach in a way that helps to overcome its limitations and harness its strengths. To begin with, we can support working memory by drawing on prior knowledge; drawing on information in our long-term memory, like knowledge of words or of number, frees up capacity in our working memory. This is one of the reasons why it’s useful to get pupils to commit some foundational knowledge to their long-term memory first.

Another strategy is to think about our exposition. This is the part of the lesson where we introduce new content. When teaching new content, we need to avoid introducing too much material at once and break the material down into manageable chunks. This will reduce the strain on the capacity of our working memory. We also need to remove any unhelpful distractions, like unnecessary classroom noise or redundant words in our instructions. The capacity of our working memory is limited, and anything that gets in the way of pupils’ thinking about what we need them to will only make it harder for them. Some pupils with special educational needs or disabilities may experience particular difficulties linked with working memory, and so strategies that reduce the strain on working memory may be especially helpful.

Next we need to give pupils plenty of opportunities to practise when learning new content. Effective practice gets pupils to think hard about their learning. It helps pupils to commit new content to their long-term memories, and therefore, remember it. Finally, retrieving content from our long-term memory helps to make it stick. This doesn’t just mean revisiting previously taught content time and again. Instead it means providing opportunities for pupils to draw up information from their long-term memory. Asking pupils a question or a quick low-stakes quiz can be an effective way of doing this.

Getting the balance right between exposition, practice, and retrieval isn’t easy. No formula exists about how long to spend on each. The time spent on exposition, practice, and retrieval will vary depending on your pupils’ prior knowledge and what it is that you’re teaching. Understanding how pupils learn and adapting your teaching to meet this is an important part of high-quality teaching. Ensuring high-quality teaching is an effective approach for all pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. However, some pupils with special educational needs and disabilities may need additional support on top of the high-quality teaching. Teachers should work closely with the SENCo in their school and other support staff, such as teaching assistants, to ensure that they tailor their instruction to specific needs of some pupils.

Presenter exemplification framing

In a moment, you’re going to watch an Ambition Institute coach model a sequence of learning to a year one class. As you watch, focus on how they do the following:

  • Breaks complex material into small steps.
  • Balances exposition, repetition, practice and retrieval of critical knowledge and skills.

Exemplification: Ambition Institute Coach

In this model, I’m going to show you a sequence of learning that’s aligned with what we understand about how memory and learning work. For context, imagine that I’m teaching a year one class how to form the lowercase letter m. They already know what an m looks like and have practiced forming it in reception, but in year one, pupils need to refine their handwriting and make it much more accurate.

“The sound we’re going to be working on in handwriting today is, mm. Mm. Great. Now in a minute, I’m going to show you an example of how we form the lowercase letter m. Now in reception, we knew it as, down Maisie mountain mountain, but in year one, we need to be a bit more specific. That means, we need to be thinking about what m looks like, and how we are forming our m.

Let me show you how I would do it. I want you to pay really close attention to where I place my pen. This will help you be really accurate when you have a go on your own. [Teacher constantly checks pupils are watching as she models]

I’m going to start Maisie on the top of this middle line, and I’m start by going straight down, straight, straight down, and then back up. And I’m going to start my mountain at Maisie’s shoulder. [Teacher gestures to her shoulder] 

I’m going to go round the mountain and straight down, straight, straight down. Oh, I like that.  And then I’m going to go straight back up, and I need to make sure my mountains are the same size, here, the same size. [Teacher points at letter on white board]

And I’m going to go back round again and down. And at the end, I’m going to have a little bit of grass. Wow. I’m really happy with that.

Did you see how long it took me? It took me a really long time. Now I want you to tell me what to do.

Okay. So, what do I do first?

[Pupils answer]

 Yep, I go straight down, straight, straight, straight down, and then back up.

And where do I stop Maisie’s mountain?

[Pupils answer]

Her shoulder, brilliant. I go around and down and then back up. What size do the mountains have to be?

[Pupils answer]

Same size, yep, same size. Can you see that they’re the same size?

And then I go back down, and what do I have to have at the end? A little bit of grass.”

In the short sequence of learning, I made sure that my teaching was aligned with what we know about memory in several ways. Firstly, I built on pupils’ prior knowledge by linking to what they already know about the letter m. In this case, what sound it makes. Because during phonics lessons, pupils learn to associate a sound with a written letter, so hearing this should help them recall what the lowercase letter looks like. Having brought this image to mind, they can focus their attention on how I form the letter.

During my exposition, where I modelled how to form the letter, I took steps to focus pupils’ attention on the most important things. I want to ensure that their working memories are processing the most important information. I broke the model down into specific manageable steps that the pupils need to take, like drawing a straight line down, stopping at a point 2/3 of the line, which is equivalent to Maisie’s shoulder. Breaking the task down into component parts helps pupil to focus their attention. It provides a mental equivalent of the dotted outlines that they have practised using before.

I was also regularly checking to ensure that all pupils were on task, looking at me as I modelled, because I know that any low-level disruption can really get in the way of their thinking. And it helped that I was writing on a sheet of blank paper. There was nothing to distract them from watching me form the letter.

Finally, I provided lots of opportunities for pupils to practise, to help pupils commit the key learning to their long-term memories. During my model, I asked them to tell me how to form the letter, saying the key steps out loud, straight line down, straight line down, mountains the same size. It helps pupils to develop an inner teacher voice that they can use when working independently. It also meant that I could check to see if pupils knew these key steps before setting them off on their own. Pupils then had plenty of time to practise independently, and during this time, I was able to carefully check their work to make sure that they were not practising mistakes. I know that what they think about is what they will learn.

Even in this short sequence of learning, there are many ways in which I was able to take instruction for memory into account, making it more likely that pupils will be able to access and remember what I teach them.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we’ve explored what we mean by instruction for memory and looked at some practical ways in which teachers can assure that their instruction is aligned with how pupils learn. Before we finish, read through the key ideas. Which of these do you currently take into account the most?

  • Balancing exposition, repetition, practice and retrieval of critical knowledge and skills
  • Breaking complex material into smaller steps
  • Reducing distractions that take attention away from what is being taught

Presenter summary

It’s quite likely that you’re already doing some of these things in your teaching practice, but everyone can get better. The more you understand about how pupils learn, the more effective your teaching will be.


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Teaching challenge

Mr Alexander has a clear idea of the content that he wants his pupils to learn. However, despite ‘covering’ the content in lessons, he still finds that many of his pupils struggle to remember it in future lessons. What can Mr Alexander do to help his pupils remember what they have been taught?

Key idea

Memory plays an important role pupil learning. Teachers need to understand this and design instruction that is sensitive to the properties and limitations of memory to support remembering.

Evidence summary

Pupils remember what they think about

Memory plays an important role in pupil learning. Pupils use the store of knowledge in their long-term memory to make sense of new ideas and to help with higher order tasks like creativity and critical thinking (Willingham, 2009). Therefore, if pupils can’t remember what has been taught previously, we might say that they haven’t learnt it properly and, as a result, they are also unlikely to learn related new material or succeed at tasks that require higher order thinking. Mr Alexander needs to understand the link between memory and learning and adapt his instruction to make remembering more likely.

Mr Alexander’s pupils may be struggling to remember material he has ‘covered’ if too many new ideas have been taught too quickly, exceeding the capacity of pupil working memory (Willingham, 2009). When this happens pupils might experience ‘cognitive overload’.

Attempt the tasks below:

  • First try to work out in your head the sum 4 x 7.
  • Now try to work out in your head the sum 14 x 273.

Both sums require the same process, but the second sum is more complicated and requires more items to be held in working memory, causing cognitive overload for most people. We learn what we have thought hard about (Coe, 2013). However, when working memory is overloaded like this, pupils are unable to think sufficiently about any of the material and are therefore unlikely to be able to remember it. Some pupils with special educational needs or disabilities may experience particular challenges linked to working memory capacity (Gathercole et al., 2006) and are therefore likely to require additional or adapted support to successfully access material (Willingham, 2009). Conversations with colleagues, families and pupils may support teachers to identify effective strategies.

Supporting pupil thinking

Mr. Alexander can support pupils to remember taught material by ensuring his instruction supports effective thinking. The capacity of pupil working memory is limited to a few items; the exact number depends on pupil prior knowledge and the items’ complexity (Cowan, 2008). Mr Alexander can support pupil thinking by explicitly linking new material to what has previously been learned and ensuring small steps are used (Rosenshine, 2012). If these steps are the right size, pupils can properly process new information and integrate it into their existing mental models.

Here are two approaches to introducing new material in ways that minimise overloading pupil working memory:

  • Worked examples: Showing all the steps of a process (for example long multiplication in sum two above) enables pupils to attend to one step at a time.
  • Partially worked examples: For example, completing the first step of the problem for pupils helps them focus on, and think more deeply about, fewer parts of the problem (Sweller et al., 1998).

However, as pupil knowledge develops, the support which initially helped pupils can get in the way of them using their growing knowledge (Sweller et al., 1998). For example, an explanation of a diagram might help a novice but may distract a pupil who already has the knowledge to interpret the same diagram. So, Mr Alexander gradually needs to remove support as pupil expertise increases.

The I-We-You model can be a useful approach to gradually removing support (Lemov, 2015):

  • ‘I do’: Pupils need direct input to have enough knowledge to avoid their working memory becoming overloaded.
  • ‘We do’: Pupils complete a worked or partially worked example using this knowledge, with teacher support.
  • ‘You do’: Only when he has checked pupils can complete examples successfully with minimal support should Mr Alexander move to independent pupil practice.

Retrieval for memory over time

Having supported pupils to think successfully about new material, Mr Alexander needs to help pupils remember material over time. We have known for 100 years that without revisiting learning, people forget most material covered within a few days (Ebbinghaus, 1885 in Cowan, 2008).

A powerful way Mr Alexander can support pupils to remember learning is to get them to regularly ‘retrieve’ material covered. Retrieval is the act of recalling information from memory and is beneficial in itself because it helps to ‘cement the information to memory’ and makes forgetting less likely (Pashler et al., 2007).

Retrieval is most powerful when pupils have begun to forget material, as this makes pupils think harder when retrieving, strengthening their memories. So, to be most effective, retrieval practice should be spaced out over time (Pashler et al., 2007). For example, Mr Alexander could return to material in a few days and then a few weeks to support his pupils to remember it most successfully.

Nuances and caveats

One challenge some pupils with special educational needs or disabilities may experience is limited working memory capacity (Gathercole et al., 2006). So, supporting pupil thinking may in itself support these pupils to be successful. However, pupils may have other barriers so teachers should always take care to find out about specific barriers (e.g. visual impairment) and support strategies (e.g. large font copy of class materials).

Individual differences may mean retrieval practice is not equally powerful for all pupils. Factors that affect the impact of retrieval practice on pupil memory include the intervals between teaching and recall, and whether feedback on pupil responses is provided (Agarwal et al., 2017).

Key takeaways

Mr Alexander can ensure his instruction supports pupil memory by understanding that:

  • Pupils remember content they think hard about, and they can’t think if their working memory is overloaded.
  • Teachers can support thinking by introducing material which builds on prior knowledge, breaking it up into manageable steps and using worked and partially worked examples.
  • As pupil knowledge increases, support can get in the way of thinking and should be removed.
  • Opportunities to retrieve at increasingly spaced intervals promotes remembering.

Further reading

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.


Agarwal, P. K., Finley, J. R., Rose, N. S., & Roediger, H. L. (2017). Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory, 25(6), 764–771.

Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience.

Cowan, N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338.

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0. San Francisco, Jossey Bass. 2nd Edition.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007). Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.

Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. G. W. C. (1998). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), 251–296.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco: Jossey Bass.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Mr Alexander can ensure his instruction supports pupil memory by understanding that:

  • Pupils remember content they think hard about, and they can’t think if their working memory is overloaded.
  • Teachers can support thinking by introducing material which builds on prior knowledge, breaking it up into manageable steps and using worked and partially worked examples.
  • As pupil knowledge increases, support can get in the way of thinking and should be removed.
  • Opportunities to retrieve at increasingly spaced intervals promotes remembering.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?