The science of memory and forgetting: how to beat "summer brain drain" in your primary school
Summer brain drain is every primary teacher's too real back to school nightmare. Here's why it happens, how memory and forgetting works for KS1 and KS2 children, the problems, and practical solutions to help your pupils remember more and forget less in Maths.
It’s the start of term, and you feel well prepared for your new class. The summer saw you meticulously studying their assessment data; you know which objectives the children understood last year. You are ready to hit the ground running by building on what they already know. So, you plan a range of interesting and challenging lessons to facilitate this.
Yet a couple of Maths lessons in, it is apparent that those green boxes on your tracker system are lying … Your pupils cannot do the maths you’ve planned, and some deny all knowledge of the concept. Percentages? Never heard of them! Division? What’s that? There’s no alternative: scrap those lessons you lovingly crafted during your well earned break, and go right back to basics.
The summer brain drain has struck and it's in Maths it often seems to hit hardest.
Maybe their previous teacher’s assessment was more generous than the evidence strictly warranted? Have over optimistic colleagues ticked boxes that a more sober analysis would have left empty? After all, it is only human to want to feel effective as a teacher.
It certainly is tempting to blame the situation on your predecessor. But think for a moment about the class you have just said goodbye to – is their teacher secretly cursing your misplaced generosity too? You know that the data you passed on was robust. Yet maybe they are just as baffled about the gap between reported skill and the ability of the children sat in front of them.
The science of memory
There is a reason this all too familiar situation occurs year after year. A child may well have demonstrated that they can tick that box once, but being taught a new skill is only the beginning.
Having that concept securely stored in a child’s long-term memory – in a form where it can be used flexibly and adaptively – is the ultimate goal. Unsurprisingly, the journey from A to B can be really tough.
It is really worth teachers understanding this journey, for two reasons. One, to ensure we do the right things to enable a child’s knowledge to reach its ultimate destination. As well as to prime us to be alert for the pitfalls along the way and how we can mitigate against them. So read on for four learning pitfalls that impact memory and learning, and how to stop them in their tracks!
1. Remembering the wrong things
Our brains have to be selective; if we remembered everything going on at every moment we would become overwhelmed. The brain has evolved to prioritise the things we pay close attention to. Therefore, it’s important to avoid planning lessons where a child’s focus is on the medium rather than the concept.
Playing maths games can be a great way to aid learning. However, sometimes more attention is spent on learning the rules than focusing on the actual concept. As a result, the brain thinks the concept is not that important and doesn’t remember it at all.
Open-ended maths problems can be similar. The brain applies lots of thought to the strategies needed to solve the problem, and consequently, there is less focus on the maths. Used too early in the learning process, this is unlikely to result in long-term recall of the maths concepts we thought the children were practicing.
Solution: plan activities that make students think about the right things.
2. Weak storage strength
The brain makes the pragmatic decision to let memories fade unless they get used. It will assume we only want to store long-term memories that we actively retrieve. A concept can make it into the learner’s long-term memory, but it won’t stay there without regular use.
All teachers will have had that frustrating experience where a lesson appears to go very well, yet the next day the children appear to have remembered nothing. The good news is – this is normal and actually useful. It sounds bizarre, but forgetting something is a necessary part of the journey from short term to long term memory.
The forgotten memory is not really forgotten; it is floating about somewhere in the long-term memory, but needs to be retrieved in order to make itself stronger. A rather counterintuitive process, memory strengthening works best if the memory has been forgotten! For example: trying to remember something a few minutes after a lesson will reap fewer dividends than trying to remember it the next day.
Testing before re-teaching
If children have forgotten a concept, the temptation is to boost memory by immediately re-teaching. However, this is not the best approach initially. Although it seems mean and inefficient to make children struggle, what actually gets the memory juices flowing is that act of struggling (and maybe failing) to retrieve memories. This tells the brain ‘hey, I really want to remember this stuff!’
This is known as the ‘testing effect’ and has been very well researched. The best way to implement this is through small, frequent pop quizzes on a few concepts. The worry with over-testing is that it is stressful for children. However, these are not intended as big, high stakes tests like SATs, and they can be planned purely for making learning stronger – not for collecting data.
Of course, once students have had an initial, possibly unsuccessful attempt at retrieving a memory, at that point the teacher should re-teach it. This time, when it is remembered again, the memory will be stronger. That is why some schools start each maths lesson with a problem from the previous lesson.
Optimising the process
Retrieving something once usually isn’t enough to build a strong, durable memory. Ideally students should be asked to practice concepts at increasing intervals; a day later, a week later, a month later, 6 months later. The brain gets the message: this stuff is important.
What makes these memories even stronger is if their recovery arrives out of the blue, in the middle of learning about something else. For example, in the middle of a sequence of lessons about fractions, give pupils a few subtraction questions to work on. This is effective because the brain has to think particularly hard when asked to retrieve something it wasn’t expecting to. Research has shown that this ‘interleaved’ practice is more likely to result in strong memories.
Solution: frequent low stakes quizzes at spaced out intervals that get children to try and retrieve what they have previously learned.
3. The "use it or lose it" principle
Memories fade with time if they are not used. Exceptionally keen students practice their maths all summer, but most children won’t have done any mathematical thinking over the holidays. Their memories will be starting to fade.
However, don’t despair! Memories might be fading but they are not gone forever. With a bit of prompting, they will be reawakened. It is very unlikely that you will need to reteach the concepts in the same detail as when they were first learned.
It’s best to anticipate this hurdle at the start of the year. Expect to have to reanimate faded memories from previous year group content. Plan with the view that forgetting stuff in inevitable, and it ultimately results in stronger memories. This is all part of the brain’s cognitive architecture.
Solution: plan deliberately to revise previous learning. It will come back quickly.
4. The transferability trap - episodic and semantic memory
The goal of learning is that concepts are securely stored in the long-term memory. They must also be in a form where they can be used flexibly to solve all sorts of different problems. Yet we know that students find this hard. Understanding the way the brain learns can help us plan for this inevitable eventuality.
When we first learn concepts, we initially remember them using our episodic memory. This is the autobiographical part of our memory that remembers the times, places and emotions that occur during events and experiences. In the episodic memory, the sensory data – what a child saw, heard and possibly smelt during a lesson – alongside their emotions, become part of the learning.
These emotional and sensory cues are triggered when we try and retrieve an episodic memory.
So, children will find it easier to remember something if they are sitting at the same desk in the same class with the same teacher, as this familiar backdrop is part of their memory alongside whatever it is they are learning. Take away these environmental cues and the memory is suddenly hard to find.
However, there is another type of memory that is not so context-dependent. This is our semantic memory – the final destination on our learning journey. Semantic memories are facts, concepts, meaning and knowledge which have been liberated from the emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired. Once a concept has been stored in the semantic memory, then it is more flexible and transferrable between different contexts.
When a child changes classes and teachers, concepts in the episodic memory will be much harder to recall without those familiar environmental prompts. The presence of an unfamiliar teacher will mean that the emotional context is also different. Both these changes make remembering stuff harder.
Episodic memories have sensory data anchoring them down to specific contexts. The next step is to set the memory free of their emotional and environmental cues. It’s important to anticipate this in teaching and planning.
3 simple ways to defeat summer brain drain in Maths:
1. Change the environment for your KS1 & KS2 pupils for Maths
Some changes can happen straight away. For example, making sure children are not always in the same seat will help. It is during June and July that you can most effectively plan for this, as this is when most concepts are revisited.
Ideally, plan to change the physical setting – maybe by doing some maths in the hall or in the playground, but at the very least by making sure children sit next to different peers. This way, they will encounter episodically memorised topics without familiar environmental stimuli. This nudges the memory forward on its journey from episodic to semantic.
2. Change the context of your primary school and apply Maths to different subjects
Apply the learning to a different part of the curriculum. For example, DT is ideal for practicing measures outside of the confines of a maths lesson, whether it involves measuring lengths of wood or weighing ingredients for a recipe.
Art lessons can involve revising symmetry or fractions. Reinforce that a half of a shape can be made many different ways by giving children two differently coloured pieces of paper the same size. Get the children to cut one piece in half and discard one of the two halves. The remaining half can be cut into different shapes, and each piece stuck onto the other coloured shape. The resulting pattern will be half one colour, half the other, yet every child will have demonstrated this differently.
Art could also be used to revise ratio. Perhaps launch a class investigation into the effect on tone by adjusting the different proportions of white to red paint. Or, experiment with different amounts of sand and water to see which mixture makes the firmest sandcastle. Definitely one for outside!
If you are feeling really brave, you could revise angles by using a water pistol and a giant protractor! The investigation would test which angle works best if you want to hit a particular target. Although this lesson has the potential to provide lots of distraction (to put it mildly), which can result in children paying attention to the wrong thing, it does have a great advantage: it involves children measuring angles vertically as opposed to horizontally. By explicitly transferring the learning to a different context, we strengthen the conceptual understanding.
3. Build memory, not memories in Maths
What is important to stress here is that exciting lessons take place once the children already know the maths. The above suggestions are not great for learning the concept in the first place because they are so episodically rich. The danger is, what will grab the children’s attention is the extraneous context and not the maths: The children will only remember the experience.
One might assume that because children remember plays, trips and sports days, the key to remembering maths is to make lessons full of exciting, memorable experiences. While that is not an unreasonable supposition, it is based on a misconception about how memory works. If we over-stimulate the senses or the emotions by trying to build good memories, we actually work against the development of strong long-term recall of the concepts we were trying to teach.
Children must forget the episodic clutter surrounding how they learned something. If learning is too focused on the time, place and context, that memory will be inflexible and not very transferrable. The key to strong semantic memories is lots and lots of thinking hard, practising and revisiting concepts and then finally, applying them in other contexts to aid transfer.
If teachers understood more about how the brain remembers information, it might save us a lot of frustration. If you want children to remember things long term, you need to plan for it not just at the point of delivery, but throughout the coming year.