Organise for better retention
Organise for better retention

Organise for better retention

This afternoon I was listening to Gayle Allen (@gallentc) interview Dan Willingham on the Curious Minds at Word podcast. The podcast has a fantastic back catalogue and this episode is essential listening for any teacher, student or PD learning lead. There is one particular section that has me thinking.

Memory is all about connections, and what I mean by that is that when you remember something, you’re not just recalling a single piece of information in isolation. You’re actually recalling a whole web of associations and connections between different pieces of information.

Prof Daniel Willingham (29 minutes)

Having discussed Bower’s work on the benefits of using imagery to aid memory earlier in the podcast (17 minute mark) he goes on to allude to a second Bower paper – “brilliant in it’s simplicity.” Bower (1969) “The memorisation of meaningful verbal material,” is a seminal paper cited over 5,000 times. Bower’s study demonstrated that people tend to remember words better if they are presented in meaningful contexts rather than in isolation.

Participant were asked to study a list of 48 unrelated nouns and then recall them after a short interval. The four experimental groups used different organisational strategies to memorise the list: (1) a hierarchical grouping strategy, (2) a free-form clustering strategy, (3) a serial ordering strategy, or (4) a repetition strategy. The hierarchical grouping strategy involved organising the list into a meaningful hierarchy, with related items grouped together. The free-form clustering strategy involved grouping the items based on any meaningful relationship. The serial ordering strategy involved memorising the items in a specific order, while the repetition strategy involved repeating the items aloud.

After the initial study phase, the participants were asked to recall the items in any order they wished. Bower’s study showed that organising a list of words by conceptual hierarchy improved recall compared to a list arranged in a random order. Participants who were presented with an organised list were able to recall an average of 65% of the words correctly, while those presented with a disorganised list only recalled an average of 19% correctly. The study demonstrated the effectiveness of organising information in a meaningful way to improve memory retention.

This effect is known as the “depth of processing” effect and has been replicated and extended in many subsequent studies. In fact, in his online lectures and writings, Professor Stephen Chew often cites the importance of meaningful processing and encourages ‘students’ to actively engage with course material in order to process it more deeply.


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The ability to organising information / knowledge is one the key reasons has categories and tags that “curate and organise the content,” or flashcards. Flashcard tags can be viewed or hidden, viewed to aid successful retrieval, hidden to increase retrieval challenge. Pupils can also be challenged to connect flashcards by tag.

More recent research in the field of memory has further developed and refined our understanding of the depth of processing effect. For example, studies have shown that deeper processing of information leads to better memory retention not only for verbal information, but also for visual and spatial information. Additionally, research has suggested that the depth of processing effect may be mediated by the level of attention or elaboration applied to the information, rather than solely the level of semantic processing. It is the ‘learning’ associated with various classroom activities of categorising, sorting, summarising and synthesising.

Try it now: summarise Bower’s finding in a sentence.

In Test-enhanced learning: A practical guide, I also signpost “values” / emotions and “motivation.”

Bower, Gordon & Clark, Michal & Lesgold, Alan & Winzenz, David. (1969). Hierarchical Retrieval Schemes in Recall of Categorized Word Lists. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 8. 323-343. 10.1016/S0022-5371(69)80124-6.

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