Permanent Learning

Teaching for keeps: what works and why? 30 Ideas

Like it or loathe it, focus on ‘off by heart’ learning may be part of a future of extended re-call in linear examinations. 

The cost of temporary learning is high

A 2013 OECD study reported here ranked England 22/24 in numeracy and literacy, the only country in which 55-65 year olds performed better than 16-24 year olds.  As Learning beyond Fifteen: Ten Years After PISA shows, in countries where 15-year olds achieved high PISA scores, young adults maintained high levels of literacy and numeracy proficiency a decade later.

Sam Freedman asks here, “Given the improvements in behaviour; the reduction in criminality; the falls in truancy; the increase in aspiration; the improvements in home lives - all of which are known to link to academic attainment - why haven't we seen a commensurate, observable, rise in academic standards? Either academic standards have actually improved, but we just don't have the measurements available to identify it properly, or something is happening in schools that's preventing us capitalising on these "non-cognitive" improvements to genuinely improve standards. So what's going on?”

Could permanent learning provide an answer?

What does permanent learning look like?

The aim of permanent learning is NOT mindless rote learning, but that:

Therefore teaching for permanent learning looks like:

What are the principles behind permanent learning?

This is vital because, as Renkl and Atkinson point out here, the capacity of working memory may be limited to the simultaneous processing of two or perhaps three chunks.”

All learning places a cognitive load on the limited capacity of working memory as either:

  1. Intrinsic load: the complexity of the learning.  Renkl and Atkinson argue that the magnitude of intrinsic load “is actually dependent on a person’s level of prior domain knowledge.  High-prior knowledge allows for constructing larger meaningful information chunks so that cognitive load is reduced.”
  2. Germane load: the demands placed on working memory capacity by mental activities that contribute directly to learning.
  3. Extraneous load: the demands placed on working memory capacity by mental activities that do NOT contribute directly to learning.

In Why Don’t Students’ Like School, Willingham points out that, “although we can’t make our working memories larger, we can... make the contents of working memories smaller.” 

Five components of permanent learning

1. Memorable Explanation

Rosenshine found here that, “the most successful teachers... spent more than half of the class time lecturing, demonstrating, and asking questions.”  And Nick Rose writes here that “material with high distinctiveness... tends to be recalled better.”

‘Chunking’ is another method that creates more space in the working memory.  We remember CID and FBI much more easily than D-I-B-F-D-I

1. Give memorable explanations: Ideas @The Learning Spy and @Class Teaching
2.  Spend sufficient time on explanation.  Research at Principles of Instruction
3. Chunk information memorably: 10 strategies @Reflecting English
4. Article on explanation that sticks

2. Memory-friendly practice

Robert Coe states here that “learning happens when people have to think hard.” 

Nick Rose points here to evidence that the strength of long-term memory depends on the depth of processing.  Deep processing requires more attention; therefore divided attention results in shallower processing and weaker recall.  He writes:

“The best answer is to try to ensure our students are cognitively busy in our lessons. Avoiding disruption to the lesson due to poor behaviour is key, otherwise attentional resources are diverted from the material to be learnt. Beyond this our best bet is to try to structure the lesson in a way that provides opportunities for semantic processing and elaboration, encourages optimal cognitive effort... and makes the lesson and the ideas as distinctive as possible (but without diverting attention... a good starting point is to simply avoid activities which encourage superficial processing of the core knowledge and ideas [like word search puzzles, underlining and cloze tasks].” 

Renkl and Atkinson also advocate student self-explanation as a valuable activity that causes students to think harder.  They point out that, “The construction of a sound knowledge base is not a quasi-automatic by-product of studying examples or solving problems.  In fact, learners have to actively self-explain the solutions, that is, they have to reason about the rationale of the solutions.”

1. Keep students cognitively busy with appropriate tasks
2. Use student self-explanation. Ideas @Class Teaching no. 3 and 4
3. Go beyond self-explanation to students explaining to others. Ideas @Headguruteacher
4. Teach self-explanation.  Research here showed that “participants who received self-explanation instruction performed better.”

3. Memory-friendly sequences

Renkl and Atkinson point out that “what represents cognitive load depends on the specific stage of skill acquisition... learning from worked-out examples, in comparison to problem solving, is very effective during the initial stages of cognitive skill acquisition. In later stages, however, solving problems is superior.”

Start with worked examples

Worked examples reduce cognitive overload by freeing the working memory from performance demands to concentrate on understanding.  Kirschner et al. point out here that this “directs attention to learning the essential relations between problem-solving moves.”

In addition, Renkl and Atkinson advise using self-explanation activities to “ensure that the free cognitive capacity that is available in example study is effectively used... Active self-explaining is especially important [when helping learners to]... learn the rationale of how to apply their basic knowledge of the domain.” 

Move on to problem solving

Kirschner et al. point out that “instructional methods that are effective for novices become less effective as expertise increases... Higher aptitude students who chose highly structured approaches... achieve at a lower level than those with less structured versions.”  This is because the generative nature of problem solving, even where solutions are wrong, encourages deep processing of the answer.

Renkl and Atkinson argue that, “In later stages of skill acquisition, emphasis is on increasing speed and accuracy of performance, and skills, or at least subcomponents of them, should become automated. During these stages, it is important that the learners actually solve problems as opposed to studying examples.”  This automaticity frees up room in the working memory.

At this stage:

  • Worked examples actually become extraneous load because they “contain information that is easily determined by the more experienced learners themselves and, therefore, can be considered redundant.”
  • Self-explanations also become extraneous load.  The emphasis is now on speed, accuracy and automaticity and “When automaticity is the goal, self-explanations are not very helpful.”

Interleave practice

Permanent learning is the ability to retrieve information in any circumstances.  Rohrer points out here that the ‘constant cues’ of blocked practice (a focus on one topic or type of problem at a time) can lead students “to believe that they understand material better than they actually do... an illusion of knowing.”

Interleaved practice also helps students to compare and contrast the deep structure of different problems.

1. Use fading models. Ideas @educationinchemistryblog


2. Sequence lessons in the run up to exams. Ideas @Reflecting English 
3. Spacing and interleaving in practice @Class Teaching
4. Techniques for memory-friendly practice @Mr Thomas’ Blog
5. Tips for students on using interleaving @j2jenkins
6. Moving from modelling to problem solving in Maths @Moments, Snippets, Spirals
7. Find out more about the dangers of minimal instruction @Filling the Pail

4. Structured learning

Learning is more permanent when students construct it into a mental framework.  In Make It Stick, Brown et al. point out that, “high structure builders learn new material better than low structure builders.”

Therefore, far from requiring rote learning, we need to ensure that students are constructing mental frameworks to ‘hang’ their learning from.

1. Use knowledge organisers to help students to structure knowledge @Pragmatic Education
2. Help students to create mental models.  6 Strategies @Love Learning Ideas no. 6

5. Retrieval of learning

Information in the long-term memory is useless if it cannot be retrieved.  In Ten Benefits of Testing, Roediger et al. argue that, “the act of retrieving when taking a test makes the tested material more memorable... compared to restudying the material.  The size of the testing effect as it has been named, also increased with the number of tests given.”   

In When is practice testing most effective? Rawson and Dunlosky advocate planning a cycle of dynamic testing into teaching:

Frequent, low-stake retrieval-based quizzes, followed by corrective feedback, followed by spaced restudy.  For maximum retrieval, they argue that practice tests should encourage generative recall rather than recognition recall (multi-choice) although research here indicates that multi choice quizzes are as effective as short answer quizzes.

Rawson and Dunlosky find that time is more effectively used practicing until target information is recalled once and then moving into a cycle of dynamic testing than spending a longer amount of time on initial practice.  And optimum dynamic testing has three cycles with the time needed for re-practice decreasing:

Carpenter et al. suggest here that these cycles should be spaced at 10-20% of the test delay e.g. across a 20 month linear course, at 2 to 4 month intervals.  Robert Bjork argues here that the process of forgetting actually improves permanent learning by creating the “opportunity to reach additional levels of learning.”

1. Introduce retrieval quizzing into lesson planning: Ideas @Class Teaching no. 1 & 2
2. Consider using Spaced Learning: Ideas @EddieKayshun
3. Helping students to remember quotes. Ideas @must do better
4. Develop personalised spaced repetition programmes for students.  Research by Lindsey et al. on this here
5. Ideas on optimal use of quizzing @Pragmatic Education
6. Help students to incorporate permanent learning into their revision @Teaching: Leading Learning

Further strategies for assessing permanent learning
1. Consider the benefits of multi-choice questions the real
2. Use student self quizzing @Memrise
3. Closed questioning for retrieval @Reflecting English
4. Use an assessment strategy to embed learning @BodilUK
5. Create flashcards online
6. Spaced Testing of Everything @Mr Thomas’ Blog
7. Formative use of summative tests @Headguruteacher



Posted on April 17, 2015 .