Enhancing boys' memory for learning

Memory is the process of encoding, storing and retrieving knowledge and experiences. It is hard to overstate the importance of memory. Explicit memories refer to those we can consciously recall - knowing that spiders have eight legs or remembering the time you fell off your bike and skinned your knee. There are also implicit memories – using motor memory to coordinate your walk or to move your lips and tongue to reproduce sounds you’ve learnt. Memory is crucial in transforming us from dependent newborns to independent adults.

A memory is the reactivation of a specific group of neurons. Neurons communicate with one another at junctions called synapses, where one neuron sends a message to another neuron. The strength of these connections is referred to as synaptic plasticity. These connections can be strengthened or weakened depending on when and how often they have been activated and gives added meaning to use it or lose it! Changing the strength of existing synapses, or adding new ones, is critical to memory formation.

So how can we maximise our boys’ memory for learning?

According to cognitive neuroscientist Professor Jason Mattingley, reducing distractions in our environment is critical to attention and memory. While some may claim victory as masters of multitasking, studies suggest this approach only activates inhibitory networks in the brain (by rapidly switching between tasks), rather than truly performing these simultaneously. In contrast, our Explicit Teaching model at Ipswich Grammar School deliberately minimises the ‘noise’ that is often observed in primary classrooms more broadly and maximises our boys’ focus through research-based strategies such as clear learning intentions and precise steps to success.

Rather than passively reviewing notes, research recommends spacing study sessions to strengthen deeper memory formation. At Ipswich Grammar School, our boys purposely engage in the process of recite-recall-apply in our daily warm-ups to ensure distributed practice. Our warm-ups reinforce our boys’ understanding through constant review and exposure to knowledge and skills, spaced over time. This distributed practice helps to harness our boys’ motivation to engage and reduces the mental fatigue (which interferes with information processing) associated with massed practice.

Mnemonics – songs, rhymes, acronyms, images, phrases or sentences – are tools that help us to remember facts or information. For example, the mnemonic Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit, gives the five musical notes on the treble clef – EGBDGF. Mnemonics form associations between the words we recite and the content we want to remember. As is often explained to our boys in the Junior School, the recite component of our warm-ups is critical to our memory. Put simply, it’s telling our brains what to think – if we don’t say it, we don’t remember it.

The purposeful process of recite-recall-apply in our daily warm-ups is the solution to strengthening our boys’ neural pathways and our boys’ active participation is the key component to their success.

Anja-Lee Caldwell
Junior School Curriculum Leader