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Long Term Memory

“Memory is the residue of thought,” says Daniel Willingham. What does this mean?  That students will remember what they think about.

Information has a long journey through the student’s brains if it is to be learned and then applied.  It has to be delivered in some way, such as reading, hearing, or observation.  The student must receive it, meaning their attentional system perceives it and recognizes it as important.  It has to arrive in working memory and be retained there for a short period of time while it is processed in some way, such as deciding where it links to existing knowledge. Then, finally, it must make the move to long term memory, a process that involves time, sleep, and proteins produced in the hippocampus.   It takes all that just to get it stored in long term memory.

There are many things that can prevent new information from making it into long term memory.

  • A breakdown in the chain above, such as attentional issues or poor working memory
  • Lack of sleep
  • Interference from other memories such as misconceptions from prior knowledge.

But the journey doesn’t even end at storing information in long term memory; we want students to be able to retrieve and use that information.  One idea about how we forget information theorizes that the information is in our brains, but we can’t retrieve it.  Practicing retrieval of information strengthens the neural pathways to that information.

What can we do to help our students better encode and retrieve information from long term memory?

  • Distributed Practice – Research shows that spacing between learning, review, and assessment can result in longer retention.  The recommended length between learning and review is about 15% of the time until assessment.  Revisiting the most important concepts regularly will also aid long-term retention.
  • Making Connections – Students who can fit new information into a schema or organizational structure that relate it to existing knowledge are better able to recall it.  Help students understand how to make connections with previously learned information.
  • Interleaving – Interleaving is a practice of mixing up types of questions rather than blocking similar questions together.  This provides students with opportunities to practice different retrieval cues and helps them learn not just to solve different types of problems, but also to identify which information or technique is required.   Interleaving can actually result in more wrong answers initially, but higher performance and better recall in the long run.
  • Retrieval practice – When a student practices recalling information there are at least two benefits.  First, the student  learns to assess his own mastery of the material.  Second, the student internalizes cues for recalling the information and forms more neural pathways to the information.  There are three kinds of recall:
    • Recognition – multiple potential answers provided, student recognizes information.
    • Cued recall – teacher asks question, student retrieves information.
    • Free recall – no prompts, student retrieves information on own.  Free recall is the hardest, but best indicator that information has been encoded and can be retrieved.

    Helping students practice recall is important. For most students, “studying” could involve reading, flashcards, highlighting and many other activities, but few students realized that just thinking about a topic can be “studying.” Giving students guiding questions that help them learn to practice recall can be a good first step.  Even asking them to reflect in writing on the previous night’s reading or the day’s class can be an excellent opportunity for them to practice recall and organize information.

  • Wait Time – Most teachers wait for one second or less before calling on students.  Students need time to recall information.  Increasing your wait time helps students practice recall.  Research shows that increasing your wait time to just 3 seconds (which will feel like a really long time at first) will increase the length and complexity of student responses.  It’s important to wait before calling on a student.  If you call on one student and then wait, no one else will be practicing recall.


What’s one thing I can do to use this in my classroom?

Pick one of the items above and try it out.   For example, if you’re a chemistry teacher interested in interleaving, provide students with practice problems that mix up the last several days of material. They’ll have to identify the correct concept or formula to apply and solve the problems.  As a bonus, you’ll also be providing distributed practice!

Once you’re comfortable with one technique, pick another and try that one out.

Links to Learn More:

References and Research:

  • deWinstanley, P. A., & Bjork, R. A. (2002). Successful Lecturing: Presenting Information in Ways that Engage Effective Processing. New Directions in Teaching and Learning, 19-31.
  • Ormrod, J.E. (2011).  Human Learning. Prentice Hall.
  • Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2010). Recent Research on Human Learning Challenges Conventional Instructional Strategies. Educational Researcher, 406-412.
  • Schwartz, B. L., Son, L. K., Knorell, N., & Finn, B. (2011). Four Principles of Memory Improvement: A Guide to Improving Learning Efficiency. The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving, 7-15.
  • Willingham, D. T. (2008, Winter). What Will Improve a Student’s Memory. Amerncan Educator, 17-25, 44.

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