4. Helping pupils remember

This session will take approximately 80 minutes to complete.

Session overview

In this session, you will explore how the long-term memory is organised, and how to support your pupils to remember the knowledge that is taught to them.

The session will focus on:

  • Building strong mental models in the long-term memory
  • Retrieval and strengthening of knowledge

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.

Evenly spaced and connected dots represent a well-developed and organised mental model of a topic.
Diagram 1
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.

Window 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.

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

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

Retrieval practice – Lee Donaghy at Teach First

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 <show slide 1>, 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 <show slide 2>, 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 <show slide 3>. 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.

<show slide 4> 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 <show slide 5>. 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.

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.

Mental models – Benjamin Riley

Video transcript

I want to talk to you about mental models and why it’s important for teachers to have a mental model of their students that incorporates our best scientific understanding of how students think and learn. My friend Dan Willingham, the cognitive scientist, said has this phrase he uses which is that ‘every teacher, whether implicitly or explicitly, has a theory of how learning takes place with their students’. So if you think about it when a teacher does something, some action, they’re intending for something to happen on the part of their students that will lead to some sort of learning outcome and really what we want and what I think the early career frameworks in the UK have done so admirably is to say that we want that theory to be our best available scientific one and to not use unscientific theories in our teaching.

But now I want to talk about a theory of learning that’s widely prevalent but unfortunately doesn’t have the support of our scientific inquiries and that’s learning styles. Now I may trigger a few people here, so I just want you to bear with me. So, the theory of learning styles is that different people learn more effectively depending on having that information presented in the way they would prefer. So you may have heard people say well I’m a visual learner. You may even think of yourself as a visual learner. Other people might say I’m an audio learner, I learn best by listening to something, and still others might say I’m a kinesthetic learner, I learn best by moving around.

It’s a completely plausible theory. A lot of people have it. You may even have it. Here’s the thing: we’ve studied it, we’ve looked at it, not just once, not just twice, but over and over and over again and as best we can tell using scientific inquiry there’s just very little evidence that presenting someone information in their preferred style is at all effective in helping them improve their learning. I know that that doesn’t sound right. We think that we must learn a certain way and we know that we like these ways but here’s the deal: often our intuitions about learning can be mistaken. I mean this is really why the tools of cognitive science are so important for teachers because we might have all these beliefs about what we think works but we really want to turn and rely on what we’ve studied and investigated time and again and use that to inform our mental model of what’s taking place with our students. That’s what’s going to be more effective for them and frankly make it easier for you.

So going forward if you investigate this, if you come around to the position that I again would submit to you is scientifically supported which is that learning styles is not a particularly effective strategy to use with your students, what happens when you start hearing some of your teaching colleagues who believe firmly in that? Let me just say that I have found in my life that it’s not particularly effective to say ‘well, you’re wrong and the science says so’. What you instead might want to try is see if you can shift the topic a bit and say you know I’ve been really interested in this dual coding approach to learning and I’ve been trying it with some of my students and let’s investigate that together and maybe by working together with your colleagues you can give them a new mental model of how to approach their teaching. You don’t try to just disprove something that they may already believe but you instead create an alternative possibility they can employ. That’s what I think makes effective educating. Often it’s not so much about you need to know this or else you’re, you know, ill-advised or dare I say stupid, but instead trying to give people something new that they can use and find powerful in their own teaching and in their own life so I don’t know if this module could rise that high but I hope you found it somewhat helpful and I hope you have encoded it. Thanks.

Related ECF strands

How Pupils Learn

2.5 Long-term memory can be considered as a store of knowledge that changes as pupils learn by integrating new ideas with existing knowledge.

2.6 Where prior knowledge is weak, pupils are more likely to develop misconceptions, particularly if new ideas are introduced too quickly.

2.7 Regular purposeful practice of what has previously been taught can help consolidate material and help pupils remember what they have learned.

2.8 Requiring pupils to retrieve information from memory, and spacing practice so that pupils revisit ideas after a gap are also likely to strengthen recall.

2h. Balancing exposition, repetition, practice and retrieval of critical knowledge and skills.

2i. Planning regular review and practice of key ideas and concepts over time.

2j. Designing practice, generation and retrieval tasks that provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting challenging work.

2k. Increasing challenge with practice and retrieval as knowledge becomes more secure (e.g. by removing scaffolding, lengthening spacing or introducing interacting elements).

Subject and Curriculum

3.2 Secure subject knowledge helps teachers to motivate pupils and teach effectively.

3.3 Ensuring pupils master foundational concepts and knowledge before moving on is likely to build pupils’ confidence and help them succeed.

3.7 In all subject areas, pupils learn new ideas by linking those ideas to existing knowledge, organising this knowledge into increasingly complex mental models (or “schemata”); carefully sequencing teaching to facilitate this process is important.

3i. Providing tasks that support pupils to learn key ideas securely (e.g. quizzing pupils so they develop fluency with times tables).

3j. Using retrieval and spaced practice to build automatic recall of key knowledge.

Adaptive Teaching

5.6 There is a common misconception that pupils have distinct and identifiable learning styles. This is not supported by evidence and attempting to tailor lessons to learning styles is unlikely to be beneficial.

Managing Behaviour

7m. Supporting pupils to master challenging content, which builds towards long-term goals.

Professional behaviours

8d. Engaging critically with research and discussing evidence with colleagues.