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Long-Term Memory

The Early Career Framework states that teachers should learn that... Long-term memory can be considered as a store of knowledge that changes as pupils learn by integrating new ideas with existing knowledge.

Long-term Memory is the phase or type of memory responsible for the storage of information for an extended period of time. This type of memory tends to be stable and can last a long time—often for years. Long-term memory can be further subdivided into two different types: explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) memory.

van Kesteren, Krabbendam, Meeter (2018) state that

Successful knowledge construction is suggested to happen through reactivation of previously learned information during new learning. This reactivation is presumed to lead to integration of old and new memories and strengthen long-term retention.

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Learning is defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory nothing has been learned. Progress means knowing more and remembering more.

How, then, do we ensure that students are processing new information and storing it in their long-term memory?

Here is where both Retrieval Practice and Cognitive Load Theory comes in to play.

The theory identifies three different forms of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load: the inherent difficulty of the material itself, which can be influenced by prior knowledge of the topic Put simply, intrinsic cognitive load is just the difficulty of the subject, topic or information that’s being learned. For example, single-digit addition has a lower intrinsic cognitive load for most than long division. You’ll notice in the example it says it’s easier for ‘most’, because the difficulty of a topic is subjective. This makes intrinsic cognitive load difficult to control in mixed-ability classes, but it’s something you should still consider when teaching new topics.

  • Extraneous cognitive load: the load generated by the way the material is presented and which does not aid learning. This is the easiest type of cognitive load to control inside the classroom. Extraneous load refers to the materials you use and the learning environment of your students. Extraneous cognitive load takes into account the quality of teaching materials. For example, this could be how relevant the content is in relation to the topic, or the complexity of the wording in the teaching resource. It also accounts for distractions in the classroom that might affect students’ learning.

  • Germane cognitive load: the elements that aid information processing and contribute to the development of ‘schemas’. This covers the moment when it all finally clicks. Germane load looks at when a student's working memory is able to link new ideas with information in their long term memory. It’s that ‘Eureka!’ moment. If a student already has knowledge of a subject stored in their working memory, this makes the germane loading stage more effective. But this also highlights the importance of balance. It’s important to consider each type of cognitive load equally, so pupils successfully transfer knowledge into their long term memory. This is the moment when your children not only learn, but hopefully retain new information for life.

De Jong (De Jong, 2010) states that ‘cognitive load theory asserts that learning is hampered when working memory capacity is exceeded in a learning task’.

In an article by The Chartered College of Teaching, it is suggested that if teachers understand how this theory applies to their classroom, they can plan their lessons in a way that takes into account cognitive load. (You will need a membership to read the full article, you can sign up here from as little as £1.96 per month... check whether your school has an institutional membership first though! Their Early Career Hub is great!)

Using Cognitive Load Theory in the Classroom - InnerDrive

Use worked examples or completion tasks

Giving students worked examples, where they are given instructions or shown the steps needed to achieve a particular process, allows teachers to reduce the load placed on the working memory. Research has shown that when students are given problems, often all their focus is placed on solving it, leaving little room in the working memory for the steps they used to be remembered.

However, some research has suggested that completion tasks (where students are presented with partial solutions to complete) are more effective. This is because students often don’t interact with the material in worked examples, whereas in a completion task they are forced to do so.

Carefully select material

Teachers should look to present material in a way that facilitates learning. This can be achieved through an awareness of the Split Attention Effect. This is when information is not integrated because of an unnecessary strain placed on the working memory; for example, if diagrams and their explanatory text are not placed together, which reduces learning. Similarly, teachers should only present students with essential information, to ensure that non-essential information does not take up some of the working memory’s capacity, leaving less room for essential information to be stored.

Present information visually and orally

The working memory has two partially independent channels - one for handling visual information, and another for auditory information. Therefore, if teachers present new information using a mixture of visual and auditory materials, students will be less likely to experience cognitive overload, as the content will be spread between the channels. However, teachers should be mindful of research which shown that, whilst shorter pieces of audio-visual information were more effective than visual information alone, when the audio-visual content was long, the effects were reversed. That is because the long auditory text contained too much information to process.

@TeacherToolkit also has a beginner's guide to cognitive load theory which can be read here. You will also need an account to his site, but it is available with a free account, you can sign up here. The YouTube video that you gain access to as a member is also very informative.

Teacher Magazine list the following cognitive load theory teaching strategies, and provide examples of how to apply them in the classroom, it is worth a read:

  • Worked example effect, expertise reversal effect, and guidance fading effect - if students are given guided instruction through worked examples, they're much less likely to experience an unnecessary overload on their working memory

  • Redundancy effect - occurs when students are presented information that isn't necessary, which they must process in working memory. This will lead to an extraneous cognitive load.

  • Transient information effect - spoken (or any auditory) information, should be presented in small chunks, or instead presented in written form.

  • Split-attention effect - If a diagram is presented with words that merely redescribe the diagram, the words are likely to be redundant and so should be eliminated in line with the redundancy effect to reduce cognitive load

  • Modality effect - present the text through audio, which is an example of the ‘modality effect'. Dual-mode presentations under these circumstances allows the use of both visual and auditory working memory, thus expanding the working memory resources available and so facilitating learning.


[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017) Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659–701. .

Agarwal, P. K., Finley, J. R., Rose, N. S., & Roediger, H. L. (2017) Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory, 25(6), 764–771. .

Allen, B. and Sims, S. (2018) The Teacher Gap. Abingdon: Routledge. Baddeley, A. (2003) Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature reviews neuroscience, 4(10), 829-839.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009) Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp.5-31. Chi, M. T. (2009) Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. In International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 89-110). Routledge.

Clark, R., Nguyen, F. & Sweller, J. (2006) Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. John Wiley & Sons. Cowan, N. (2008) What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338.

*Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning [Online] Accessible from: . [retrieved 10 October 2018]. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58. .

*Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018]. 29

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006) Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240.

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers. Oxford: Routledge.

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F. & Zambrano, J. (2018) From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. In International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 13(2), 213-233.

Pachler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007) Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Pan, S. C., & Rickard, T. C. (2018) Transfer of test-enhanced learning: Meta-analytic review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 144(7), 710–756. .

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011) The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27. .

*Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. .

Simonsmeier, B. A., Flaig, M., Deiglmayr, A., Schalk, L., & Well-being, S. (2018) Domain-Specific Prior Knowledge and Learning: A Meta-Analysis Prior Knowledge and Learning. Accessible from:

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360–367. .

Willingham, D. T. (2009) Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: JosseyBass. Wittwer, J., & Renkl, A. (2010) How Effective are Instructional Explanations in Example-Based Learning? A Meta-Analytic Review. Educational Psychology Review, 22(4), 393–409. .

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