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The Bad News and the Good News: Why and How to Teach about Memory

Written by: Tricia Taylor
10 min read

One of the most frequent comments that students make after I teach them about memory (and about why some strategies are much more powerful than others) is ‘Why didn’t we learn this sooner?’. Teaching students about memory seems like a no-brainer.

Students are only human after all. As humans, we are programmed to look for shortcuts rather than think hard. As Daniel Willingham explains in Why Don’t Students Like School?, ‘Our brain serves many purposes, and thinking is not one of them.’ It is much easier to rely on what we already know (what’s in long-term memory) than to think up new ideas and solutions, especially since thinking is ‘slow’, ‘effortful’ and ‘uncertain’ (Willingham, 2010). Our students can also be wary of teachers trying to convince them of strategies that are ‘good for you’ when in fact they feel more difficult. My advice is to be honest and lay out the facts. There is bad news and there is good news.

The bad news

1. Learning takes effort

The first step is explaining to students that learning is tough. To remember something, we need to think hard about its meaning and use considerable effort, often referred to as desirable difficulty (Bjork and Bjork, 2011). This can be a hard sell to students. In a study by Kirk-Johnson et al. (2019), students even misinterpreted the feeling of effort (from recalling information, for example) as ‘I must not be learning’.

The best way to get this point across is to show rather than tell. You can use a simple task based on the research of Craik and Tulving (1975), who set up a number of experiments to test the relationship between types of processing and recall. Create three categories with about six words in each, and prepare the task based on the following:

Category Preparation
Capitalisation Write some words in upper case and some in lower case
Rhyme Write some words that rhyme with each other and some that don’t
Meaning Write some words that can easily be put in context and some that can’t

Then direct students to do something with the words. For example:

(1) Circle words that begin with a capital letter

(2) Circle words that rhyme with cat

(3) Use this word in a sentence: dog.

Then tell students to turn their sheet over and ask them to remember as many of the words as they can from the task. After a couple of minutes, show them all of the words, with their corresponding categories, and ask them to share which category was the most remembered. Without fail, words from category 3 (‘Use this word in a sentence’) will be remembered the most. Make the point that we remembered these words the best because we had to consider the meaning of the words. Retrieval practice works, because it requires that we think hard about something in order to remember it (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

2. Learning takes time

Almost all of what we experience is forgotten. This forgetting actually serves an important purpose: forgetting allows us to get rid of useless information that we don’t need to know. Paradoxically, forgetting also serves another function, which is to help to provide moments whereby memories can become stronger. When a person is taught something and asked to recall it immediately, they are typically able to do so, provided they paid attention long enough for it to have been processed in their working memory. Time passes, however, and we quickly forget. In a matter of hours or days we lose most of what we were taught (Brown et al., 2014). For both students and teachers, this rate of forgetting can be discouraging and ‘an uncomfortable truth’ (Rose, 2018). However, recalling that information again later helps to fortify that memory. This is often illustrated using a graph, termed the ‘forgetting curve’, first introduced by Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 1800s.

To illustrate this, share the forgetting curve with students. It’s helpful to also give a concrete example. Ask your students ‘what time did you go to bed last night?’ and ‘What what time did you go to bed a year ago today?’. Most likely they will remember what they had that morning but not a year ago. Then refer students to an example of something they know (times tables, spellings or an aspect from your content area). It should be something that they know well, because they’ve had to recall it several times. Make the point that to remember something, you need to practise recalling it several times.

3. We don’t know that we don’t know

Study after study shows that we are bad at predicting what we actually know (Bjork, 2018). We often suffer from the illusion of knowing, a situation in which the learner thinks they know more than they do, perhaps because the material is familiar or because they’ve put a lot of (ineffective) effort into study. The illusion also occurs when students believe that they’ve learned something immediately after it’s been taught (when actually it might be forgotten permanently if not recalled later) or when we think we know something because the cues in the classroom give us the answer (posters on the wall, notes or even the way in which a teacher typically frames questions).

It may not be a surprise then to learn that there is a negative correlation between a learner’s notion of what the best strategies for learning are and what the research says. Not only are we bad at knowing what we know, but we are also bad at predicting what works best for us.

To demonstrate the illusion of knowing, create a short quiz of about five questions based on information that you think students will assume they know. Here, I borrow from Daniel Willingham (2008), who says that people are generally more likely to be overconfident about what they know than underconfident. He suggests using questions that are not too easy or too hard. For example: Can you name the Seven Dwarfs?. Students have to quickly predict whether they will know the answer. Then ask them to answer the question. After a few minutes, give them the answers and ask, ‘Who thought that they would be able to answer the question correctly, but actually wasn’t able to?’. Most students will fit into this category.

Another way to introduce the illusion of knowing is to survey students about their own habits, using the following question: How do you judge that you’ve really learned something?

  • I feel confident about it. I just know it.
  • I can remember the information the next day.
  • I can remember information months later.

In my most recent survey, the majority of Year 11 students chose ‘I feel confident about it. I just know it.’ This reflects an important teachable point: students tend to judge whether or not they’ve learned something on how it feels rather than actually testing themselves later.

The good news

So far it may feel like it’s all bad news for students and teachers: learning is tough (desirable difficulties), we forget most of what we are taught (the forgetting curve) and we are often clueless about what how much we actually know (the illusion of knowing). Time for some good news. There are a number of teaching and learning strategies that make recall and learning much easier – and, in some cases, more enjoyable.

1. Pictures pack power

Have you ever noticed that when you hear or read a story, you can picture it in your head? That’s because our brains like pictures. Pictures help us to remember information. Dual coding – combining verbal information, like words or speech, with visuals, such as pictures, drawings or diagrams – helps us to learn better (Paivio, 1971).

2. Drawing

Related to dual coding are the benefits of drawing. A number of studies of the impact of drawing on retention and learning by Fernandes et al. (2018) found that drawing not only helped with the recall of words, but it also worked for remembering more complex things, like concepts and definitions. These researchers state that drawing (e.g. drawing vs repeatedly writing a word or definition) is a ‘reliable, replicable means of boosting performance’ requiring no more than ‘four seconds to provide benefit’ (Fernandes et al., 2018), and this was true for participants over a range of ages. Not only does drawing benefit from the advances of the power of picture, but the act also incorporates elaboration of the meaning of a word in order to create the drawing.

Teach students about the benefits of drawing and encourage them to incorporate drawing into their learning and notes. Model how you would do this. Keep the drawings simple or provide some structure (partially completed drawings) to support this strategy.

3. Chunking turns many into one

Chunking maximises our memory by turning many items into a manageable few. Explain to students that chunking is a word that scientists use for the grouping of small pieces of information into large, more meaningful pieces of information that we can hold more easily in working memory. Chunking helps to hold more information in our brains while we are thinking and makes it easier to recall information later (Tulving and Craik, 2000; Cowan, 2010).

To teach chunking, show students these letters: YMIASTESATPCE. Then compare them with this sentence: MY CAT EATS PIES. Explain that humans constantly group information, such as language, maths, grocery lists, sentences and words. This makes it easier to understand and to remember – or to find that information, a bit like a wardrobe. If we have a big list of items to pick up from the shop, for example, we remember the items more easily if we group them by aisle or type. Alternatively, if we have a big task to do or remember, we might ‘un-chunk’ it to break tasks into more memorable steps.

Model chunking first and use resources to help, such as graphic organisers, mind maps and structured note-taking. 

4. Everyone loves a story

The secret to the story’s success is its narrative structure. There is a beginning (Once upon a time… ), a middle (a conflict of some sort) and an end or resolution (… and they all lived happily even after). Although not all stories follow that traditional structure, it’s a familiar pattern that is frequently mirrored in our own lives. Stories help memory, because they provide a framework that we can relate to (Willis, 2017; Willingham 2004). Because all new learning is related to previous learning or understanding, stories give us a hook, ‘a way in’, when learning information. They also help with recall because stories provide cues. If we remember the first bit of a story, we are likely to remember the rest.

Teach students why stories help us to remember and encourage them to create stories for difficult-to-remember content. They should avoid adding too much embellishment to their stories. Although we encourage exaggeration when using stories to memorise, you don’t want students to remember unnecessary or inaccurate details.

Similar to my experience, Dunlosky and Rawson (2015) found that after conducting experiments with students on using spaced retrieval practice, they had students tell them that they were shocked about how well they did and asking whether their friends could be part of the experiment! When we teach students about memory (the bad and the good), not only do we get learners to use the most effective strategies, but we are also changing their views on effort and their capability to improve. This is motivating. In the end, it’s all good news.


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Bjork R (2018) SOLER Symposium lecture, ColumbiaLearn, Columbia University SOLER Symposium, Low Memorial Library, USA, 11 October 2018. Available at: (accessed 10 November 2018).

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Willis J (2017) The neuroscience of narrative and memory. Edutopia. Available at: (accessed 12 November 2018).

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas