How to help your pupils remember everything they learn

Children in a classroom Image

According to a recent news report in The Independent, many learners struggle to retain facts. The report asserts that to learn students need two kinds of knowledge:

  • Subject knowledge, like maths, history, or computer programming
  • Knowledge about how learning works

Science writer Annie Murphy Paul has written extensively on the key to learning, including the importance of understanding how learning works. She says, “Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge. We’re comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself—the “metacognitive” aspects of learning—is more hit-or-miss, and it shows.”

Attention to learning strategies isn’t new. In recent years educational researchers from Australia have found that students vary widely in what they know about how to learn, and that low-achieving students may be struggling because of a gap in their knowledge about how learning works.

  • Drawing pictures or diagrams to help with understanding
  • Making up questions about the subject and answering them
  • When learning something new in a subject, thinking back to what is already known
  • Discussing knowledge with others
  • Practicing things over and over
  • Going back over work when something isn’t understood
  • Making notes of things not understood, so they can be revisited
  • Organising time to learn

Children should ideally be using all of the different learning strategies. Parents and teachers can help children to improve their awareness of learning strategies by asking the following questions at the beginning of a new topic:

  1. What is the topic for learning?
  2. What will be the important ideas in this topic/lesson?
  3. What do you already know about this topic?
  4. What else can you relate this to?
  5. What will you do to remember the key points?
  6. Is there anything you don’t understand?

The strategies for mastering the skill of learning are based around four key areas:

  • Make it stick – this is the least fun part of learning, but forcing recollection of facts is just like working a muscle. The more you do it, the better it gets. Use flash cards to help recall facts.
  • Connect new things to old – explaining how new information connects to old is all about weaving threads. The more connections you have between topics, the easier they are to remember later on. Try to link subject matter to stories or examples to help cement the ideas.
  • Don’t make assumptions – just because you have found a particular topic easy, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will remember it. Still use a variety of learning strategies to commit learning to memory.
  • Reflection – looking back helps students feel more confident about moving forwards. Research by the Harvard Business School suggests that spending time reflecting on experiences is the most important aspect of the learning process.

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