How to boost your pupils' memory skills


Developing an effective working memory can go a long way to helping students achieve their potential in exams and wider school life. Sal McKeown looks at how some schools are promoting good memory skills.

In 2011, Rochester Grammar School in Kent was the top performing state school for the International Baccalaureate in England. 

It is also consistently among the schools with the best GCSE and A/AS level results in the South East. It is a leading Thinking Foundation School, working with Exeter University. The school works closely with Learning Performance, a business that runs workshops and training sessions for schools, and competes regularly in the UK Schools Memory Championships.

The senior management team sees good memory as one of the cornerstones of academic success and induction for new staff includes training in memory techniques. 

“Memory improvement should be a main feature of your lessons,” they are told, “whether they are content or skills-based. The memory is like a muscle, you need to use it and make it stronger. Changes towards a more linear curriculum make this even more important.”

Staff are fully trained to use as many methods as possible so pupils are not just rehearsing, repeating and learning by rote. The school helps pupils develop mnemonics, posters and revision notes. All year 7 pupils get a memory training pack which covers such topics as encoding, storage, retrieval and rehearsal. They learn how to chunk information to make it easier to memorise and ways of organising it to make retrieval easier. 

Ashley Wicken is the gifted and talented co-ordinator at the school and recently organised a memory Olympiad. Pupils had to learn 200 facts. The results were impressive. Two pupils managed to get 100 per cent of the facts correct and recalled them in the correct order. 

Developing working memory 

Tracy Packiam Alloway, a former director of the Centre for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan at the University of Stirling, is an expert on working memory and education and is the author of the internationally recognised Alloway Working Memory Assessment. 

Her view is that “working memory is like our brain’s Post-it note”. She explained: “We use it to consciously process information and keep it ‘active’.” 

She believes that working memory is a better predictor of grades than IQ scores. In one experiment, pupils were tested at age five and 11: “A student’s working memory skills at five years of age was the best predictor of reading, spelling and maths outcomes six years later.”

Schools are beginning to realise that developing working memory will have a knock-on effect on skills, confidence and exam results.

Some schools assess a whole cohort to identify children who are likely to require extra help; others use a more selective approach and just assess children who appear to be under-performing. 

There are many products on the market but among the most popular are the Alloway Working Memory Assessment 2 (AWMA-2), an online assessment produced by Pearson, and Lucid Recall which only takes 20 to 30 minutes and provides instant results.

Rachel Lewis, assistant director of learning support at Darwen Aldridge Community Academy in Lancashire, was aware that working memory was a problem that affected progress in all subjects. To tackle the issue, the school decided to make it a major focus for student support. 

They used Mastering Memory from CALSC. Unlike other software interventions, Mastering Memory is a teaching programme where a helper works with the pupil to ensure that the memory strategies transfer to the classroom and real-life situations. 

A higher level teaching assistant withdrew children for up to 20 minutes at a time. In some cases it has had a dramatic effect. Ms Lewis explained: “Ryan was the first child we had with really obvious memory problems. When he came to us in year 7 he could not remember a single significant life event, not the birth of younger brothers and sisters, birthdays, trips out.

“In fact his problem was so severe that his parents arranged for a brain scan but there was no obvious cause for his problems.” 

Ryan has now been using Mastering Memory for two terms and is better behaved, follows lessons better and is much more communicative.

Staff at Darwen Aldridge have had INSET on memory training and now routinely use memory games as starters for lessons. They also encourage children to create mnemonics for recall, to be “active readers” using a highlighter to pick out key terms to create a glossary, and draw visual cues to learn and reinforce new vocabulary.

Some have adapted the old game of “I went to the market and bought...” so it is relevant to different curriculum subjects to help pupils recall information from previous lessons. 

Classroom strategies

Jane Mitchell, a former speech and language therapist and creator of Mastering Memory, offers suggestions for classroom strategies to help relieve the pressure on children’s memory 

  • Show and Tell: give them an overview before the lesson starts, explaining what you want them to learn and how it will be tested later.

  • Make it visual: use a MindMap, a topic web, grid or diagram.

  • Pre-teach vocabulary: don’t let them get distracted wondering what words mean. Check they can say words, know what they mean and can spell them. Play Pictionary with curriculum vocabulary.

  • Focus their attention: highlight important points with colour. 

  • Explain clearly: adapt your language if necessary, pause between sections, “chunk” the information.

  • Write it up: put keywords and numbers on the board.

  • Help the child to record information: keep copying to a minimum. Colour-code alternate lines on the board, hand out transcripts, use cloze activities (a technique in which words are deleted from a passage and students re-insert them as they read), photocopy notes, let learners make audio recordings of lessons or take pictures of the board with a mobile phone or other device.

  • Remind the learners of memory techniques: suggest strategies such as saying it aloud, drawing pictures, visualising and creating videos in the mind.

  • Talk it over: ask pupils to tell someone what they learned, recall the three most important facts from the last lesson or make up quiz questions for other class members.

  • Reflect: ask them what was easy to remember and why.

Pupils with specific learning difficulties do not always have the working memory needed to look at a board and hold a piece of text in their head long enough to write it down. 

Some schools are looking at Audio Notetaker, software which lets students listen to and annotate audio recordings or record a commentary to go with PowerPoint slides. 

Audio Notetaker has also played a useful role in revision. Some schools record audio revision notes for the pupils, broken up into sections. Pupils listen, find suitable images for each topic, and then write notes.

This three-stage process means all pupils, regardless of ability, can engage with the task. Teachers have suggested that it is also a good way to involve parents as pupils can take audio files home too, meaning that parents know what their child is learning about. The repetition of the audio helps embed phrasing and concepts as well.

At Dartford Grammar School for Girls in Kent they use many of the same approaches advocated by Jane Mitchell in their modern foreign languages classes. 

Learning a language can be very challenging and places high demands on memory because pupils have to process different sounds, rules and spellings which may contravene English patterns and rules. 

The school won the 2012 European Day of Languages Championship, run by Vocab Express. The intense preparation for a competition of this kind requires the ability to recall information quickly, under pressure and use it appropriately. 

A group of 25 key stage 3 students had the top combined score from all the schools taking part. They also won the individual Genius cups for success in Spanish and German.

Karine Kleywegt, head of modern foreign languages, said: “We were one of 194 schools from across the UK that took part in the week.

“The students were so excited by the prospect of competing against other schools in the championship that they were practising through their break times; it appealed to a competitive side for languages we didn’t know they had.”

While many schools are celebrating success in examinations and competitions, the benefits for the individual students may be even more potent. 

Back at Rochester Grammar, Ashley Wicken said: “A good memory is associated with success. Children make superficial arguments because they do not have enough evidence to back up their assertions. 

“We want them to learn more effectively so the school is pushing them to absorb facts more efficiently. A good memory is associated with success both academically and in business.”SecEd

  • Sal McKeown is an education writer specialising in SEN and technology.

Types of memory
  • Long-term memory: stores facts which are still accessible after a long time.
  • Short-term memory: holds the information needed for the present, such as a sequence of numbers.
  • Short-term visual (iconic) or short-term auditory (echoic) memories are transferred to “working memory”.
  • Working memory: holds and manipulates information, such as recalling a sequence of information and reciting it backwards.
  • Semantic memory is our knowledge of the world, including understanding words and language.
  • Episodic memory/autobiographical memory: personal memories unique to each person.
  • Sensory memory: smells, sounds which evoke the past.
  • Retrospective memory: memory of the past including semantic memory and episodic memory. 
  • Prospective memory: remembering to remember, remembering appointments, responding to cues such as remembering to post a letter when you see a letter box.


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