Learning And Memory In The Classroom: What Teachers Should Know (Especially After The Summer)

Without an understanding of learning and memory and how one affects the other, too often we want to stare at our class after the summer break wondering what has happened to everything they were taught the previous year.

Former school principal Clare Sealy is well known for her clarity in explaining many of the complexities of cognitive neuroscience as it applies to the elementary and middle school teacher.

Here she looks at working memory in the classroom and the science of memory and forgetting, and provides some guidance for how to best support your students.

Summer slide is real…

It’s definitely a tough one. Imagine this: It’s the start of the school year, and you feel well-prepared for your new class.

You know which objectives the children understood last year.

You are ready to hit the ground by building on what they already know. So, you plan a range of interesting and challenging lessons to facilitate this, propped up by teaching strategies you’ve carefully woven through them.

Yet a couple of math lessons in and your students can’t do the math you’ve planned, and some deny all knowledge of the concept.

Percentages? Never heard of them!

Division? What’s that?

Even those children who’ve kept themselves busy with plenty of summer activities (or even summer school) might seem to have lost some of their learning, with math skills and concepts often more ‘leaky’ than writing or reading skills. 

Your carefully planned strategies have become pointless because students just can’t engage with the material.

You are left wondering how on earth you’ll beat this ‘summer slide’. 

There’s no alternative: scrap those lessons you lovingly crafted during your well-earned break, and go right back to basics.

The rest of this article looks at some of the findings into human memory and how memory encoding takes place so that we are better prepared to address the summer slide next time it comes around.

We’re not so much interested in which brain regions this takes place or how the brain systems of neurons and synapses function, but rather, what happens to memory performance.

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The importance of long-term memory

There is a reason the summer slide occurs year after year. A child may well have demonstrated that they checked the box of learning a new concept, but being taught a new skill is only the beginning – they must develop a conceptual understanding.

How to learn math by 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 though, the journey from A to B can be really tough.

It is important for us teachers to understand the journey of a concept to long-term memory, for two reasons:

  1. to ensure we provide the right enhancement to enable a child’s knowledge to reach its ultimate destination.
  2. to prime us to be alert for the pitfalls along the way and how we can mitigate them.

Problems of working memory in the classroom and transferral to long-term memory

The journey to encoding a concept in our long term memory, and creating secure retention is likely filled with obstacles. Knowledge of these, and how they affect the memory process and memory storage is key to being able to support children as they start their own memory formation.

1. Thinking about 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 prioritize 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 math 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, where it might have remembered the concept if it was taught in a direct instruction method.

Open-ended math 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 math.

Solution: plan learning activities that make students think about the right things. 

Read more: Cognitive load

2. Weak memory storage strength

Sometimes the memory can make it into the learner’s long-term memory but it isn’t a very strong memory yet.

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 without regular use there will be no, or poor memory retrieval.

All teachers will have had that frustrating experience where a lesson appears to go very well, and then the next day the children appear to have remembered nothing.

The good news is – this is normal for the human brain and actually useful.

It sounds bizarre, but forgetting something is a necessary part of the journey from short term memory to long term memory.

The forgotten memory is not really forgotten; it is floating about somewhere in the long-term memory ready for activation, but needs to be retrieved in order to make itself stronger.

A rather counter-intuitive 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 teaching them the same thing again. However, this is not the best approach at first.

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, 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 math lesson with a problem from the previous lesson.

Optimising the process

Retrieving something one time usually isn’t enough to build a strong, durable memory. Ideally students should be asked to engage in deliberate practice of concepts at increasing intervals; a day later, a week later, a month later, 6 months later. This is the process of consolidation of a memory.

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 students 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 eager students might do some summer reading, or practice their math through the summer break, but most children won’t have done any mathematical thinking during the break. Their memories will be starting to fade.

However, do not worry! 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 re-teach 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 mindset that forgetting stuff is inevitable, and it ultimately results in stronger memories.

This is all part of the brain’s cognitive architecture and memory systems .

Solution: plan deliberately to revisit 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; this is known as declarative memory or explicit memory. (This in contrast to procedural or implicit memory for something like riding a bike, the process for which can be difficult to actually articulate or explain.)

Yet we know that students find this hard.

Understanding how this declarative memory functions and the way the brain learns can help us plan for this inevitable outcome.

There are two different subtypes of memory that correlate with each other here.

Episodic memory

Episodic memory is the autobiographical part of our memory that remembers the times, places and emotions that occur during events and experiences.

When we first learn concepts, we initially remember them using our episodic memory.

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 to 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.

Semantic memory

Semantic memory retains facts, concepts, meaning and knowledge which have been liberated from the emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired.

This type of memory is not so context-dependent and is the final destination on our learning journey.

Once a concept has been stored in the semantic memory, then it is more flexible and transferable 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.

Solution: be aware of the need for sensory cues and manage your expectations initially with a new class

3 simple ways to boost brain activity and support children’s synaptic plasticity before and after the summer

1. Change the environment

Some changes can happen straight away. For example, making sure children are not always in the same seat will help. It is during April and May that you can most effectively plan for this, as this is when most concepts are revisited.

Beating the Summer Brain Drain in the playground
A lesson in the playground can help nudge students’ memories forward.

Ideally, plan to change the physical setting – maybe by doing some math on the playground, but at the very least by making sure children sit next to different peers.

This way, they will encounter episodically memorized topics without familiar environmental stimuli. This nudges the memory forward on its journey from episodic to semantic.

2. Change the context for learning

Another way to beat the summer slide is to apply the learning to a different part of the curriculum.

For example, planning a project where students have to design a room in the school or make a dish for their family is ideal for practicing measures outside of the confines of a math lesson. Projects like this involve measuring lengths of wood or measuring 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 colored 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 colored shape. The resulting pattern will be half one color, half the other, yet every child will have demonstrated this differently.

using art to beat the summer brain drain

Art could also be used to revisit ratios. 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!

3. Build memory, not memories in math (or any other subjects)

What is important to stress here is that exciting lessons take place once the children already know the math. 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 math: The children will only remember the experience.

Maths context when beating the summer brain drain

One might assume that because children remember plays, trips and sports days, the key to remembering math is to make lessons full of exciting, memorable experiences.

While that is not an unreasonable inference, it is based on a misconception about how memory works. If we over-stimulate the neural circuits with 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, practicing and revisiting concepts and then finally, applying them in other contexts to aid transfer.

If teachers understood more about cognition and how the brain remembers information and didn’t just leave it to the neuroscientists, 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.

Further Reading:

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The content in this article was originally written by primary headteacher Clare Sealy and has since been revised and adapted for US schools by elementary math teacher Christi Kulesza.


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