Daniel Willingham on how to use ‘working memory’ to your pupils’ advantage

University of Virginia academic says teachers need to know the neuroscience

All teachers should understand the basic science of how memory works, according to one of the US’ most influential voices in education.

In an interview to be shown at tomorrow’s ResearchED national conference in London, neuroscientist and psychologist Daniel Willingham said that teachers would be better able to help pupils if they understood the psychology of long-term memory and “working memory”, which is the ability to mentally manipulate information.

The University of Virginia academic – who has links with E D Hirsch, a like-minded American educationalist who argues that students must be taught “cultural literacy” and a body of “core knowledge” – has many admirers in the UK, including former education secretary Michael Gove.

Professor Willingham has written that working memory has “limited space”, meaning that if people try to juggle too many facts they tend to lose track.

In the interview with ResearchED founder and TES columnist Tom Bennett, Professor Willingham said knowledge of the limitations of working memory “might help a teacher understand why a student is struggling with something”.

Knowing how to address these limitations could “help a teacher to see ways of slowing down and breaking something apart”, he said. This was something “teachers would think of anyway”, he added, but understanding the operation of working memory would provide “a mental construct to make sense of their experience”.

Total recall

Teachers should also understand the basic principles of how long-term memory works, in part to help students prepare for exams, according to Professor Willingham.

Staff should know “the most effective ways to ensure things get into long-term memory”, and how best to make sure students are able to retrieve information from their long-term memories, he explained.

Professor Willingham said it was “absolutely crucial” that students stored subject-specific knowledge in their long-term memories, because this would allow them to develop “the thinking skills that are, for many teachers, the real goal”.

However, he said too many students were taking the wrong approach to committing information to memory, because “what they mostly do is read stuff over and over again”. This meant they were “not really thinking about the meaning at all – and, of course, it’s the meaning you’re hoping to remember [because] that’s what you’re going to be tested on”.

Instead, Professor Willingham said, pupils should spend time reflecting on the meaning and trying to understand which aspects they needed to commit to memory and why. “It sounds very simple but students seldom do that,” he said.

Mr Bennett, a teacher in East London, told TES he had encountered many students who tended to “cram and forget”.

“One problem that you see, even with hard-working students, is that that’s how they revise,” he said. “It’s not without merit but it will take you twice as long, and students need to use their time wisely.”

Mr Bennett agreed that it was vital for teachers to get to grips with some elements of cognitive psychology. “Attention, focus and memory are all key to how a student learns. It’s essential that teachers understand ways to integrate the best of what we know into how we teach,” he said. “It would be madness not to.”

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