It plagues both the third grader who forgets to bring a show-and-tell item to class and the advanced physics high school student who can’t recall a key bit of information on a crucial test. Students at all levels often respond with a familiar two-word phrase when their performance lags: “I forgot”.

Memory and recall are at center of education. Research in this area has pointed out how important retention of information is – and how forgetfulness can be improved.

Why Do Students Forget?

In a blog about the latest brain research, experts at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research explain that learning is closely connected to three types of memory.

Sensory memory is information that is quickly passing through the brain from the senses. If it is given attention, it moves into short-term memory, but only briefly in many cases – less than a minute unless it gains more of our attention and we begin to respond to it (sensory memory is also called “working” memory). If we focus on it further, it then is passed into long-term memory where it can be stored for various periods of time, sometimes for the rest of our lives.

Several factors determine whether information is forgotten or moves into long-term memory, including the circumstances under which it occurred, whether it relates to other familiar items there, and how it is attached to certain emotions.

One memory researcher has determined that there are four reasons for forgetting information: retrieval failure (often if a memory isn’t brought to consciousness and used); interference of some sort from other memories or current circumstances; failure to store it for a variety of reasons; and intentional efforts to forget or minimize the information.

Often with students, they are not engaged enough to move information firmly into long-term memory, or they don’t use and re-use the information to establish it in that portion of the brain.

The Importance of Keeping Students Engaged to Retain Learning

The most fundamental way to make certain that students retain information is by engaging them, and there are a number of books and articles about student engagement – calling on teachers to consider approaches such as changing seating patterns (and flexible seating); improving their relationships with students, using differentiated instruction, and using humor to keep attention. Personalized and flipped and blended learning also have proven successful.

Experts say engagement can involve any approach that actively involves students in their learning.

That can mean hands-on projects, working in groups, independent research, or any style of teaching that includes students in the exploration of a topic, including “reading, writing, listening, discussing, experimenting, modeling, designing and making something,” according to researchers who explored the issue.

Teaching Strategies to Increase Retention Rates

Research in this area has pointed to several techniques that can help students remember information. Spacing out the study of a topic and self-testing and other exercises that retrieve information, often in small chunks, are the most effective. Here are the approaches that were used:

  • Practice testing – Self-testing or taking practice tests covering material that has been covered.
  • Distributed practice – Implementing a schedule of practice on certain topics that spreads out study activities over time.
  • Elaborative interrogation – Asking students to provide an explanation for why a fact or concept is true.
  • Self-explanation – Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.
  • Summarization – Writing summaries of presented information.
  • Highlighting/underlining – Marking potentially important portions of materials while reading.
  • Keyword mnemonic – Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials.
  • Imagery for text – Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.
  • Rereading – Restudying text material again after an initial reading.