One definition of learning offered by cognitive scientists is that learning is the transfer of knowledge into long term memory where it forms schemas or mental representations. This is what we think with. If we do not have facts or information about a topic in long term memory, we cannot think about it. This is why the first step in learning is remembering. It is worth recalling the bottom level of Bloom’s taxonomy:
In the rush to get to the higher-order thinking skills we all agree are important, we can neglect to address the first level – remembering facts and procedures. This is like the foundation of the building. Without them, it is impossible for students to move to more advanced levels of thinking. Teaching for memory can involve frequent low-stakes quizzing, cold call questioning, teaching students to self-quiz and even whole class chorusing. Teaching for memory is hugely overlooked in teaching and besides building the foundation for more advanced engagement with topics it also provides a motivating first taste of success for learners – who hasn’t seen the excitement of students when they correctly recall something they have been taught.
Identifying the key knowledge in your subject or a particular topic that you need your students to remember can be helpful. Students can be provided with knowledge organisers listing key vocab, definitions, concepts and procedures. It is worth breaking down all the information students will need to access a new topic – it could be as simple as knowing that ‘Germany’ is a country and where it is geographically, before learning about the Holocaust.
Students will need to have practice recalling specific knowledge not just during the current topic but repeatedly in the weeks and months to come if they are to commit it to long term memory. “If you can’t remember it, you haven’t really learned it” is a good rule of thumb. Building knowledge in this way is critical for disadvantaged students and a key element in advancing literacy.