Learning and long-term memory

A while ago I wrote a post about how we can structure learning to make the most of pupils’ working memory capacity. A recent conversation on Twitter prompted me to write this post on how an understanding of long-term memory can inform our teaching.

Short-term and long term memory

Both these terms are used in everyday English, but psychologists tend to use them in a specific way. Our short-term memory is thought to have a limited capacity and duration, holding a few items for a short period of time, usually just a few seconds. In contrast, our long-term memory has a huge capacity and stored memories can last a lifetime.

Types of long-term memory

Our common experience is that we have different types of memory. We may, for example, have a memory of a childhood birthday which allows us to recall sights, sounds, smells, tastes and emotions. This seems quite distinct from the memory of what the word ‘elephant’ means, or what the capital of France is. Psychologists have classified these memories into three types (although further distinctions are possible):

Semantic memory – memories of facts and figures, for example knowing what a bicycle is, being able to name the parts of a bike and explain their function.

Procedural memory – memories of how to perform an operation, for example being able to ride a bike.

Episodic memory – memories of specific events and personal experiences, for example the first time you rode a bike unaided. Episodic memories contain not only the specific details of the event, but the context and emotions of the experience.

Evidence that these types of memory are associated with distinct areas of the brain comes from studies of brain-injured patients, and from brain imaging. Some patients who have sustained brain injuries retain abilities in one area but not others. An example is the much-studied amnesiac HM who could form new procedural memories, such as the skill of mirror-drawing, but not semantic or episodic ones (Corkin, 2002). While memory function can be highly distributed in the brain, procedural memories are associated with activity in the cerebellum and motor cortex, episodic memories are associated with activity in the hippocampus and semantic memories with activity in the temporal lobe.

Long-term memory and learning

The two are inescapably related and we could define learning as a change in long term memory. This happens when information is transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory and incorporated with the information already held there. To make use of this information, we must retrieve the information from long-term memory.

Teachers can use an understanding of these processes to improve the efficiency of learning:

    Introduce new information gradually Information must be processed to be effectively incorporated into memory. Introducing new information too rapidly will not only reduce the proportion that is retained, but prevent it being effectively integrated with prior learning. This risks creating an incomplete understanding of concepts and a limited ability to apply knowledge to problem solving because of gaps in our understanding. This will of course vary from pupil to pupil, so it’s important to build in assessment that will inform the pace of future planning. Resist the temptation to plough through content at the expense of learning.
    Contextualise new information In everyday life we find that it is easier to remember information that has meaning. It’s easier to remember a friend’s phone number or birthday than a random string of digits with no context. Research supports this idea. Our consolidation of information into long-term memory and subsequent ability to retrieve it is improved when that information is presented in context, allowing us to readily make connections between new and existing information.
    Provide time and tools for practice To effectively consolidate new memories, connections must be made with existing knowledge. We need to give students enough time to do this. For semantic memories, this includes opportunities to explore new knowledge and concepts by applying them to novel situations and problems. For procedural memories, opportunities should be given to practise operations and procedures, and to use any equipment or materials needed to do this.
    Testing works better than reviewing Students May view revision as literally that, re-reading information that they have previously learned. Research shows that repeatedly attempting to retrieve information from long-term memory is a much more effective strategy. Quizzes, tests, and opportunities for self-testing will help students learn new information much more effective than reviewing content. For semantic memory, recall quizzes and tasks requiring the correct use of information, including past exam questions, will help. For procedural memory, opportunities to do things, and recount how procedures work will be beneficial.

Practical examples

Some practical examples of these strategies include:

  • Quizzes at the start of a lesson about the content covered previously
  • Checkpoints in the lesson to assess understanding of information
  • Taking time to look at the ‘big picture’, placing new learning in the concept of overarching principles or concepts of the subject
  • Drawing diagrams that connect new information with existing knowledge, within and across topics / subjects
  • Practice at applying new knowledge to solve problems, either in class or as homework, to consolidate semantic memories and improve their recall
  • Practice of new routines, operations and skills to achieve goals or solve problems to consolidate procedural memories and improve aptitude
  • Explaining new learning to others, either verbally or in writing
  • Writing test questions and answers, rather than just reviewing knowledge.

You may be interested in other posts on Psychology and education:Exams and stress – Exams: use the motivation, lose the stress

Academic success and exercise – Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE

Working memory and learning – Making the most of working memory capacity

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Things to look forward to in the 2019 Spring term

With Christmas and new year celebrations gone, the winter weather and long dark nights may seem just the time to hunker down and count the days till summer, but don’t despair: there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the 2019 Spring term!
Christmas isn’t over yet! Christmas isn’t just a single day, but lasts until 6th January (twelfth night). Traditionally the decorations stay up till then. If that isn’t enough for you, Orthodox Christmas Day this year isn’t until Monday 7th January.
While it may seem dismally dark outside when the alarm goes off each morning at the start of term, remember that from now on the days will be getting longer. The Spring equinox is on Wednesday 20th March so from then on we’ll have more daylight hours then night, with the clocks going forward on Sunday 31st March for the start of British Summer Time.
There are a multitude of feasts, festivals and special events to look forward to this term:

    2 January to 23 February RSPB Big Schools Bird Watch. A chance to get pupils involved in some citizen science by contributing to this annual bird survey. You can find out more and get class resources from the RSPB website.
    Friday 25 January Burns Night. Scots the world over celebrate their national poet.
    Sunday 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day, an occasion many schools mark or build into their teaching. The theme this year is Torn from home. You can find out more and order free resources from the HMDT website.
    Thursday 31st January Young Carers Awareness Day. Championing the needs of Young Carers, the theme this year focuses on mental health. You can find out more from the Carers Trust website and via the #CareForMeToo hashtag.
    Tuesday 5th February Chinese New Year. Commencing the Year of the Pig.
    Thursday 14th February Valentine’s Day
    Friday 1st March is St David’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales, and a bank holiday in Wales
    5th March is Shrove Tuesday (or Pancake Day), with the next day, Ash Wednesday marking the first day of Lent.
    Thursday 7th March is World Book Day in the UK (although the rest of the world celebrates this on 23rd April). You can find out more about this, and events throughout the year from the WBD website.
    Friday 15th March is Red Nose Day. This charity event takes place every two years and is a firm fundraising fixture in many UK schools. You can find out more and order a fundraising pack from the Comic Relief website.
    Sunday 17th March is St Patrick’s Day, when half the world discovers its Irish roots. Monday 18th March is a bank holiday in Eire & Northern Ireland.
    Thursday 21st March marks both the Hindu festival of Holi (‘festival of colours’) and the Jewish festival of Purim.
    31st March is Mothering Sunday in the UK (the international date is 12th March).
    Monday 1st April is April Fools Day. It’s the first time in several years that this has fallen on a school day, so watch out for jokes!
    14th April is Palm Sunday in the western Christian Calendar, with Good Friday bank holiday falling on 19th April, although with Easter falling later this year, most schools will already be on holiday on these dates.
    Saturday 20th April is the First day of the Jewish Passover
    Sunday 21st April is Easter Sunday, with the Easter bank holiday on Monday 22nd April. This date is also the first Stephen Lawrence Day. This day was announced by the Prime Minister in 2018 as a national day of commemoration for murdered teenager. You can find out more from the website of the Stephen Lawerence Memorial Trust.
    Tuesday 23rd April is St George’s Day. He’s the patron saint of England, but there’s no bank holiday for the English, so it will be back to school for many.

The list contains something for everyone, I hope, and plenty to look forward to. Let me know if I have missed any important dates and I’ll add them.
Whatever you are looking forward to this spring, have a Happy New Year!

Festival and event dates from www.timeanddate.com

Image: Rodger Caseby

Audio description is a real eye-opener

Audio description is used to enhance experiences for blind and partially sighted people. I recently received some excellent training in this valuable skill from Susan Griffiths at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, along with other colleagues from the OU Gardens, Libraries and Museums team.

What really struck me was how placing myself in the position of someone with little or no vision made me think differently my role as a communicator. In order to produce an effective audio description I had to look at objects, even familiar ones, in a new way, much more closely and from a new perspective, including taking a much more multi-sensory approach. Thinking and planning how to guide a blind person around spaces between exhibits made me view the whole museum in a different way.

The resulting descriptions we produced as a group were much more powerful, not only for blind visitors but for the sighted as well. Certainly, listening to the descriptions other participants had produced helped me appreciate objects in a new way and notice elements I had not done before.

This is a good illustration of how taking time to think about and plan for those with a particular physical need produces a richer experience for all. This is a theme I considered my post on how schools are enhanced by SEND pupils. In a broader sense, it seems to me that artistic, cultural and scientific spaces are also all enhanced by this inclusive approach: welcoming those with particular special needs creates a richer experience for all.

It’s sometimes easy to think that training like this is only for SEND specialists, but whatever your role, I would urge you take up the opportunity if you get the chance.

Quote of the Week 5

Looking for a bit of inspiration? Here is a collection of 38 quotes for educators, one for each week of the academic year.

Regular readers will know that I have collated several previous quote collections. You can find them here:

Quote of the week – inspiration for Monday mornings

Quote of the Week 2 – more inspiration

Quote of the week – a third year of inspiration

Fantastic Four – a fourth year of inspirational education quotes

In what is perhaps a reflection of my current role, this fifth collection leans more towards inspiration from the natural world. Robert John Meehan gets a couple of inclusions; I’m a bit of a fan. Katherine Johnson, whose contribution to the US space programme was dramatised in the film Hidden Figures, celebrated her 100th birthday last month. As I was finalising the collection, we heard the sad news of Aretha Franklin’s death, so I have included a couple of quotes in her memory. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also died recently and I have included a quote from his forward to the UNICEF report The State of the World’s Children 2000.

I’ve done my best to check for accuracy, attribution, and Abe Lincoln commenting on the internet. If you think I have made any mistakes, please let me know. I hope you find them helpful.

  1. As soon as we start selecting & judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – we are reducing life, not fostering it. Jean Vanier
  2. It is the little conversations that build the relationships and make a impact each student. Robert John Meehan
  3. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. Rachel Carson
  4. A human being is not attaining his full heights until he is educated. Horace Mann (or hers until she is!)
  5. Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it. Marian Wright Edelman
  6. Bringing nature into the classroom can kindle a fascination and passion for the diversity of life on earth and can motivate a sense of responsibility to safeguard it. Sir David Attenborough
  7. Let me tell you the secret that has led to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity. Louis Pasteur
  8. Inter-generational solidarity is not optional but rather a basic question of justice since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us. Pope Francis
  9. Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better. Albert Einstein
  10. Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From quiet reflection will come more effective action. Peter Drucker
  11. We should be teaching and encouraging students to respect differences, to allow for differences, to encourage differences, until differences no longer make a difference. Robert John Meehan
  12. Come forth into the light of things, let Nature be your teacher.  William Wordsworth
  13. .A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child. Kathy Davis
  14. Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning. William Arthur Ward
  15. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to close it again on something solid. G.K. Chesterton
  16. Few things are as essential as education. Walter Annenberg
  17. The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions. Oliver Wendell Holmes
  18. Collaboration allows us to know more than we are capable of knowing ourselves. Paul Solarz
  19. The Whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning. Jiddu Krishnamurti
  20. In some parts of the world, students are going to school every day. It’s their normal life. But in other parts of the world, we are starving for education…it’s like a precious gift. It’s like a diamond. Malala Yousafzai
  21. If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it. Michael Jordan
  22. You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability. Brené Brown
  23. The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered. Jean Piaget
  24. If you want to know what society is going to be like in 20 years, ask a kindergarten teacher. Clifford Stoll
  25. Books are a uniquely portable magic. Stephen King
  26. Take all the courses in your curriculum. Do the research. Ask questions. Find someone doing what you are interested in! Be curious! Katherine Johnson
  27. 1 believed in studying because I knew that education was a privilege. Wynton Marsalis
  28. Education is the mother of leadership. Wendell Willkie
  29. I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work. Neil Armstrong
  30. There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they grow up in peace. Kofi Annan
  31. I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library. Jorge Luis Borges
  32. You should probably invest as much time in understanding who you teach as you do in understanding what you teach. Manny Scott
  33. All the big words: virtue, justice, truth, are dwarfed by the greatness of kindness. Stephen Fry
  34. Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  35. I read so many books when I was a kid that I didn’t even know were shaping me up. Stormzy
  36. At the dawn of the 21st century, where knowledge is literally power, where it unlocks the gates of opportunity and success, we all have responsibilities as parents, as librarians, as educators, as politicians, and as citizens to instill in our children a love of reading so that we can give them a chance to fulfill their dreams. Barack Obama
  37. Sometimes what you’re looking for is already there. Aretha Franklin
  38. Being the Queen (of Soul) is not all about singing, and being a diva is not all about singing. It has much to do with your service to people. And your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well. Aretha Franklin

Images

  • Handprint: pixabay
  • Rachel Carson quote: Rodger Caseby
  • William Wordsworth quote: Rodger Caseby
  • Henry Wandsworth Longfellow quote: Rodger Caseby

Summertime and the living is easy?

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work.

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work. That’s because this year included a momentous change for me. After over 25 years of teaching in secondary schools, I left to work as education officer at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’m still teaching children, but visiting different schools, rather than working in one. You can read more about this here.

This Summer, we’re working with a charity that organises holidays for children. We’ll also be running our own summer school.

Not surprisingly, there are many differences between my old job and my new one, but as I read all the end-of-term posts by teachers on social media, the long school holiday, which is no longer part of my terms and conditions, is uppermost in my mind. Not because I’m missing it, but because I’m not.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to start moaning about teachers getting long holidays! That struggle to the end of term is all too resonant in my memory, together with that weird paradox whereby the number of tasks you have to complete seems to multiply exponentially as the time left to do them dwindles. I know that teachers absolutely need the Summer holiday, and so do the children they teach. What I’m wondering is why education is run in such a way that teachers need at least six weeks every summer to recover from the academic year?

From the perspective of my recent job change, I think there are three main reasons.

1. Relentless pace

This won’t be a surprise to any teacher, but the pace of work – by which I mean that there is often too much to do in the available time – inevitably means that teachers end up using their evenings, weekends, and ‘holidays’ to work – planning and assessing. We do this because we want to do a good job and do the best for the children in our care, but the danger is that we end up chasing the horizon, too frazzled to be effective and on our knees by the end of term.

In my new role, I find that my team leader insists that the work we plan is sustainable. My line manager is concerned that we build in enough time for admin tasks in our schedule, that outreach visits are timed so as not to exhaust us, and that sufficient priority is given to reflective evaluation. Staff are encouraged to take a proper lunch break and we were recently reminded to set ‘out of office’ messages on email when we aren’t at work.

The result of this is that I’m s much more effective teacher, the children have a much better learning experience, and the next day (after spending quality time with my family) I have the energy to do it all over again!

2. Too few opportunities to collaborate

One consequence of that unremitting pace, is that there is too little time to hone our practice. I believe the best way to do this is through collaboration. As Robert John Meehan says:

The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.

We can spend so much time trying to stay on top of the work, that collaboration and improvement get squeezed out. Worse still, we can come to resent meetings as a distraction rather than fantastic opportunities to create better ways of working.

Each week, there is a wider team meeting and a specific project meeting. Both are opportunities for colleagues to share updates on projects, encompassing both strategic and operational elements. There have been several occasions where input from others has been significant in moving the project I work on forward, both through ideas and practical assistance. I hope that on occasion I have been able to help others.

3. Lack of control

I believe that one of the key sources of stress within the teaching profession is lack of control. Teachers are given a lot of personal authority in their classes, but often it seems that it’s everyone else and their dog telling us how and what we should be teaching! This can leave some wondering why, when they were appointed for their individual expertise and creativity, they are then treated like programmable automatons. For schools the challenge is to achieve a consistency of pupil experience without stamping out the individuality of teachers. I think the answer is supported autonomy, creating conditions where teachers can thrive. Others have written eloquently about this topic, including this recent blog post by John Tomsett on solving the recruitment & retention crisis.

in my new role I and my colleague have experienced this by being given freedom, within the objectives and budget of the project, to plan and implement outreach days. That doesn’t mean our work isn’t open to collaborative input, evaluation and constructive criticism, but it does mean that we have ownership of it.

The result of addressing these three elements, ensuring workload is manageable, that there is effective collaboration, and that team members experience supported autonomy, is that the project is proving very successful, with significantly positive pupil outcomes and excellent feedback from participating schools, and that I’m happy on my bus ride into work, looking forward to the day ahead. Even during the school holidays.

One in a million find

Really pleased to be running #ProjectInsect with colleagues from Oxford University Museum of Natural History. So many pupils have become enthusiastic young entomologists and Sarah’s find is the icing on the cake!

In the UK, anyone can submit wildlife finds to the Biological Records Centre database using the iRecord website or app. I’ve written about how to do this here.

If you are near Oxford, we still have a few places for 10-14 year-olds on our Insect Investigators Summer School which takes place 13th – 17th August. Please email education@oum.ox.ac.uk for more information or to book a place.

More Than A Dodo

The Museum’s collection of British insects already houses over a million specimens, and now it boasts one more special insect.

Ten-year-old Sarah Thomas of Abbey Woods Academy in Berinsfield, Oxfordshire discovered a rare beetle in her school grounds while taking part in a Museum outreach session. To Sarah’s excitement, the beetle is so important that it has now become part of the collections here at the Museum – and it is the first beetle of its kind to be added to the historically important British insect collections since the 1950s.

Sarah Thomas examines her beetle under the microscope with Darren Mann, entomologist and Head of Life Collections at the Museum

Sarah’s class took part in a Project Insect Discovery Day, where they were visited by a professional entomologist, learnt about insect anatomy and how to identify and classify specimens, and went on the hunt for insects in the school grounds. Project…

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From budding biologists to citizen scientists

Children often take a keen interest in the natural world and national curriculum science contains several elements exploring biodiversity including sorting, identifying and classifying different species, and understanding the interdependencies that exist between organisms.

I have written previously about the importance of practical science, so I was interested to be introduced to a website and mobile app that enables budding biologists of any age to become citizen scientists by adding their wildlife finds to the database of the national Biological Records Centre (BRC).

iRecord is not primarily aimed at children, but can be used by professional biologists, volunteers and amateur enthusiasts, and anyone who takes an interest in the natural world. The app allows users to log wildlife finds by location and date, and to upload photos if they have one. Each uploaded record verified by an expert, so the photos are extremely useful.

After verification, records are added the BRC database. In contrast to some citizen science programmes which are designed mainly to raise awareness, rather than gather robust data, iRecord enables anyone, including children to assist research by adding records to this verified national database.

Setting up an account

Accounts can be set up on the iRecord website: www.brc.ac.uk/irecord or via the app, which is available for both iOS and Android devices. You’ll need a user name and an email account. This can be a single account, perhaps one set up for the school or class for this purpose. If you’re using the app you log into this account and finds are attributed to it. If you use the website to record finds, you can attribute finds to different observers while logged in as a particular user. There is a more advanced function where you can set up an activity, for example a survey or bio blitz at your school, and invite users to join. This might be suitable if children have school email accounts. You can also join activities set up for others.

Recording your finds

You can record what you find using the website or the app. I’ll describe making and submitting a record on the app, which I find gives an immediacy when using a mobile device with a camera, whereas the website is better for uploading several records in one go.

At first, I didn’t find the interface particularly intuitive, but I quickly got used to it and there is an extensive help menu explaining the icons and menu items, with tutorials on how to use them. You can also select a ‘training mode’ which allows you to practice creating records.

To start a new record, click on the + symbol at the top right of the screen (you could also click on the camera icon next to it to start your record with an photo).

This will open the screen for a new record. You start by entering the name. The example assumes you will start with a binomial scientific name (or abbreviation of one), but the predictive text works equally well for common names. Start typing and a list of suggestions will appear:

Click on / touch one of these suggestions to select it. This will add the record to your list, but we still need to add some details and a photo, if we have one. In the example below, we’d click on /touch the record we started for a garden bumblebee to select it.

This opens the screen for our new record. There are several fields for information and a red prompt that no location has yet been added.

Adding the location

To include a location, we select that field from the screen. This opens a map. As we zoom into our location, the map changes from geographical to a street map, then a satellite map.

Just click touch the location and a red square appears. You can change it if it isn’t the right spot. A grid reference will automatically be added at the top of the screen. We also need to add a place name in the field below it. Pressing the back arrow returns us to our record.

There is an advanced function to set up an activity. This could within a defined geographical area such as a school grounds. The app can then be set to default to this activity, recording finds in that location.

Adding a photograph

A photo isn’t essential, but is most helpful to having a record verified. To add one, we click on the camera icon at the bottom left of the screen. This opens a prompt to open the camera on our mobile device, or the photo gallery. I find that it’s best to take photos first and then open iRecord, rather than hope that whatever I’ve seen will stay still long enough to open a new record before photographing it. From your gallery, select the picture(s) you want to add. You can’t edit them within iRecord, so it’s best to do this before you start. Most of my records are insects so I often crop photos, so that the focus is on the species I have found.

Once we’re happy with the photo, we can add other information about the find:

  • Date
  • Abundance – how many individuals you saw
  • Comments – additional information, for example type of habitat or behaviours
  • Stage – adult, juvenile or pre-adult
  • Identifiers – the name of anyone who helped with the identification of your find

Uploading the record

The record is now complete but we haven’t yet uploaded it to the BRC. To do this, click the paper plane icon in the top right-hand corner of the screen. Bear in mind that you won’t be able to edit it once you have done this. Records are run past clean-up algorithms which validate the data you have entered and sent to volunteer verifiers. A verifier will then confirm the identification of your find, and may send you an email message asking for further information. In your account settings, you can set the frequency of messages. I have mine set to send a weekly email. You can also check progress of your uploads via your account. Verified records are included in the national BRC database.

I hope you feel inspired to have a go. I’ve found that iRecord has made me much more observant of the natural world. I think it has great potential to transform learning about ecosystems by enabling children to become contributors to the scientific record, as well as users of it.