How is a Student’s Memory at Test Time?

student memory

You’re about to find out that your students’ memories are FAR worse than you thought, and yet can be FAR better than you thought in another way. Let’s find out how to fix it with four quality solutions.

The Research

Your brain does not have unlimited memory capacity. So, it needs a way to prioritize input in order to decide if that input is worth using up precious long-term storage space. The “priority system” in your brain is essentially a set of filters. The primary filters are emotions, recall and engagement. Do you “feel it and do it”?

What Do Students Remember? It’s “Rare”!
Here’s what students DO remember: what’s highly relevant (as judged by the student), action (demonstrated, performed, tried out, gestured, etc.), often retrieved (by the student), or strong emotional learning (either positive or negative). The acronym is R-A-R-E, which stands for the first letter of each group of words (Relevant, Acted out, Retrieved by the student and Emotional).

If you have not provided any of these four for your students, odds are slim that they will know the information at test time. In a moment, I’ll share with you HOW to make RARE learning happen. But, just for a few seconds, think of ANY memory you have from years ago (special event, break-up, get-together, finishing a degree program, a school success, etc.) and you will discover that every single memory will have at least one of the 4 elements above.

What Do Students Forget?
They will forget most (70-95%) of the content that they are taught. Your job is to ensure that what is truly important, essential and relevant is understood well, remembered and transferred into test scores. Let’s explore some ways you can do this quickly in any class, any day of the week.

When teaching is done well, the students have bought in-to it and understand it well. But, there’s the retrieval issue at test time. Here we introduce four ways you can strengthen the recall of the content you taught.

Practical Applications of RARE Memory Tools

We are using the RARE principals of: 1) Relevance, 2) Action 3) Retrieval practice with use of spaced vs. massed teaching, and 4) Emotional engagement. Each has a solid base of research supporting it, and when you use these together (as some teachers do) your results will be amazing.

The first of the four memory tools is relevance (“R”). Relevance is everything to the brain of your students. If the brain’s not buying into classroom learning, the student’s brain is not changing (Green & Bavelier, 2008). If the brain doesn’t change, no learning has occurred (Engineer, et al, 2012). And if no learning has happened, why should students even come to school?

Students feel respected when teachers understand where they (the students) are coming from and apply that understanding by making connections in the classroom. The goal of relevance is to connect! Connect by engaging the student’s voice, culture, history, vision and story. The connections help answer the student’s question, “Does my teacher even know who I am, or care? In other words, do you connect the content to the students lives? They will ask you, “Do you (the teacher) know me well enough to respect what is important to me?”

Every day you connect, the meaning and interest goes UP and the students will be more likely to remember what they learned. Here’s an example. History teacher Katie takes her middle school kids to the Chicago History Museum for a field trip. For most of her kids, this is the first time they have ever been to this museum, so they’re in awe. Some students lock into the Social Activism Gallery, while others find different areas of fascination.

Her students reflect on their own lives and they narrow down the personal issues at the museum that they find most relevant. Their issues may include peer pressure, neighborhood violence or social justice. As students investigate these issues, the connections get stronger and their interest in the subject area deepens. Getting kids to research and write about relevant history to their lives is easy, the teacher says.

The second of the four memory tools is action (“A”). Use action in the learning process (movement, theater and gesturing). Let’s focus on gesturing for a moment. When you use more gesturing of key concepts, it allows your students to hear what you’re saying without having to visualize it. This reduces their cognitive load and helps students learn (Ping & Goldin-Meadow, 2010). Ask students to identify the 2-3 main concepts of a lesson. They can brainstorm a list of potential key items first, and then vote on them within a team. Next, take the top two and create a physical way to demonstrate each. This may mean gesturing, acting out, or showing something just through the use of expressions or hands alone.

Gesturing also has a solid basis in helping learning last (Cook, Mitchell & Goldin-Meadow, 2008). Here are a few examples: 1) ask students to become a famous character from the subject area you’re teaching and to explain an “idea”, or 2) when explaining a topic, model for your students how they should use their hands to understand it. For instance, in math, students can use their hands to show a numerator up high (above the head) and denominator down low (below the knee), or 3) have students create a three minute skit to explain an idea, with a surprise thrown in (to engage emotions), and insist they use props!

The third of the four memory tools is retrieval and spacing (“R”). Retrieval practice is an enormously underused tool. It simply means “give students time to retrieve prior learning” by simply writing it down without studying or looking at notes.

In Columbia, Illinois, the following study was done in a middle school. A sixth grade social sciences class began, and then it was later expanded to eighth grade science classes.

In the study there were two groups, the experimental group and the control group. Students in both groups were given identical content (for the same length of time and at the same time). The control group was then asked to review the content using text and slides. Students in the experimental group were given a brief quiz followed by a review of the answers on slides. That’s it; the difference was studying vs. retrieval. The results showed that those who studied averaged 79% correct and those who did brief retrieval practice scored, on average, 92% (Roediger, Agarwal, McDaniel & McDermott, 2011). The difference is enough to move from a C+ to an A-.

Why do many teachers underuse this strategy? It’s simple; most learners confuse familiarity and fluency with being able to retrieve the content. Yet those are very separate functions. Looking at familiar content is easy; it may seem as if you could recall it. But retrieval is hard, mental work. Practicing it strengthens the memory. Looking at something you have seen before is easy for the brain, but it does not help with memory as much as retrieving it. Here’s how to do this strategy:

In your classroom, retrieval can take the shape of the following:

  1. Use self-quizzing time once a week in class
  2. Ask students to retrieve what they learned yesterday (just write it out or draw it on a blank sheet of paper)
  3. Remember to space out the retrieval practice over time (1-2x/wk. is good)
  4. Use different problem types and different retrieval requirements
  5. Make the retrieval social one day (partner or team), use a deadline the next (“You have 3 minutes to write fast!”)
  6. Make the retrieval formatting as close to the actual test as possible, but add variety to keep the process fresh
  7. Use flip charts for retrieval one day

My promise? Your results will be far superior to what you have used before, I am certain of it.

The fourth of the four retrieval tools is emotion (“E”). Emotions (either positive or negative) trigger the release of adrenaline and cortisol, and both of those support memory encoding (McGaugh JL. (2013). Here are three great ideas for adding emotion to the learning. During the presentation of the content do something that evokes an emotion. First, have an excuse to: 1) drop a raw egg, pop an air-filled paper bag, do a magic trick, juggle, balance objects up high, or demonstrate something unusual.

Second, give students a few minutes to work with a partner or their team to prepare a 60 second skit to explain an idea. Bring each pair or group of students up to the front of the room and create suspense with a drum roll. Use music to introduce their skit. Have big cheers at the end.

Third, create competition. Students partner up with another student, stand facing each other. The first student gets 30 seconds to explain content. Their partner gets 30 seconds to quiz them on it. The goal is to get in 3 Qs to their partner in just 30 seconds. Then they switch, so the other explains the content and the other quizzes. This is a fast and furious “show what you know, then get quizzed on it” activity that is very fun and emotional.

Well, another well invested few minutes of your life! You’ve just added a few more brain-based strategies to your teacher toolbox. Make a promise to yourself to try one of these ideas out until it’s automatic.

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education


Cook, SW, Mitchell, Z. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2008) Gesturing makes learning last. Cognition,106,1047-58.
Engineer, ND, Engineer, CT, Reed, AC, Pandya, PK, Jakkamsetti, V, Moucha, R, & Kilgard, MP. (2012). Inverted-U function relating cortical plasticity and task difficulty. Neuroscience, 205, 81-90.
Green, CS & Bavelier, D. (2008). Exercising your brain: a review of human brain plasticity and training-induced learning. Psychol Aging. 23, 692-701.
McGaugh JL. (2013). Making lasting memories: remembering the significant. Proc Natl Acad Sci 2, 10402-10427.
Ping, R. and Goldin-Meadow, S. (2010), Gesturing Saves Cognitive Resources When Talking About Nonpresent Objects. Cognitive Science, 34: 602-619.
Roediger, HL, Agarwal, PK, McDaniel, MA, & McDermott, K, (2011). Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: Long-term improvements from quizzing. Journal of Exp. Psych. Applied, 17, 382-395.
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