Teachers' journeys of implementing memory strategies in their classrooms
Peer reviewed article
Dr Richard Johnson, Dr Sam Ginsberg and Dr Naomi Wilks-Smith report on a pilot project that focused on the research-practice nexus of memory for learning that was conducted with primary and secondary school teachers within one K-12 co-educational college.
Introduction and literature review
Memory is a key component of learning at all levels of education. Memory is defined as 'the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving impressions, or of recalling or recognising previous experiences' (Macquarie Concise Dictionary, 2013, p. 732). Without memory, we can't keep what we learn. In fact, without memory, there would not be learning. In many cases, we know we've learned because we can recall information. Memory is the glue that holds learning together therefore, students should learn memory strategies to maximise their learning (Radvansky, 2017).
Memory involves the processes of 'encoding' information, 'storing' it in memory and 'retrieving' it. Encoding is the process of transforming information into a form that can be stored in memory. Storing involves maintaining the information in memory and retrieving is re-accessing the information that has been encoded and stored.
Throughout history and across cultures, techniques have been used to encode, store and retrieve large quantities of information. Australian Indigenous cultures, as well as other indigenous cultures, have encoded information in memory using such things as song, dance, story and place (Kelly, 2015). 'Elders memorised the knowledge on which survival, physically and culturally, depended: entire field guides to all the animals and plants, navigational charts, genealogies, laws, resource rights, trade agreements, land management, astronomy, geology ... all in memory' (Kelly, 2016a, p.1). A variety of techniques were used for the memorisation of such vast quantities of information in oral cultures including using monuments as mnemonic devices and encoding knowledge in the landscape with features each representing a different element of that knowledge, known as the 'Method of Loci' (Kelly, 2015). Astronomical features were also used as a form of landscape for memory. Additionally, such things as inscribed stones, rock art, decorated boards or totems, collections of symbolic objects, and knotted chords each provided memory aids. Songs, dances and stories also served as memory devices, capable of storing large quantities of knowledge.
Over time we have lost the ability to encode, store and retrieve such large quantities of knowledge and information in our own memories, however, we can draw from the methods of the past in our current education system to improve our memories to in turn improve learning (Kelly, 2019).
A broad range of literature identifies both theoretical understandings of memory as well as practical memory strategies that are applicable to classroom teaching and learning contexts. One foundational theoretical understanding about memory is the 'total time hypothesis' proposed by Ebbinghaus in 1885, which identifies that the amount of time learning relates to the amount of recall (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2014). It could be suggested that 'more time equals more recall' is common sense, however, subsequent research builds on this and clarifies the nature of the learning time. Baddeley and Longman (1978) found that 'distributed practice' is most effective, whereby many short sessions are better than one long session of learning. On a practical level, this information is important to both teachers and students who can plan to enhance memory for learning by spreading out the learning over-time rather than concentrating it in one block of time.
Research such as that of Landauer and Bjork (1978) found that testing has a positive effect on memory. Specifically, they found that testing after a short delay, with delays gradually increasing, known as 'expanding retrieval' is most effective. This concept is more recently known as the 'spacing effect' (Pashler, Rohrer, Cepeda & Carpenter, 2007) and has been used for learning across a wide range of curriculum areas. Classroom evidence has identified that testing after learning new materials is found to have a greater impact on memory than spending more time learning the material (Bangert-Drowns, Kulik & Kulik, 1991; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). This identifies that learners need to practice retrieving information, not just learning it. Landauer and Bjork (1978) emphasise the importance of testing with feedback, claiming that incorporating feedback with testing is more effective than more time learning. This claim is supported by a study of foreign language learning using such an approach by Karpicke and Roediger (2008).
The concept of 'priming' whereby the introduction of the topic, content, or words to be learned before starting the lesson that they will appear in is important for the memory of learning (Schacter, 1992). Priming provides a form of tuning students in to learning and increases their attention to the features to be learned and in turn increases their memory for those features. This strategy could easily become a natural part of teachers' lesson plans. It would help teachers to articulate what it is they want students to learn before commencing a lesson and would focus students' attention on the key concepts at the start of the lesson.
The 'von Restorff effect' proposed in 1933, suggests that an item to be remembered needs to be distinctively different from other items (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2014). On a practical classroom level, this means that items to be remembered need to stand out in different ways, for example, a word on a list to be remembered should be written in a different colour to make it stand out from the other words. With a similar purpose, the Sans Forgetica font (RMIT, 2019) was developed to be distinctively different based on the concept of 'desirable difficulty' (Yue, Castel, & Bjork, 2013). Gaps and slants are embedded in the font requiring learners to put in more effort and engage in deeper cognitive processing when learning which leads to greater retention. The font was tested with 400 Australian university students, providing evidence that it increases memory (Deutrom, 2018; Earp, 2018).
Memory techniques including mnemonics have long-standing popularity (McPherson, 2004). Some involve visual imagery, whilst other forms of mnemonics include the items to be remembered in a story. Experimental studies using story mnemonics (Bower & Clark, 1969) and mnemonics for learning Pi (Hu, Ericsson, Yang & Lu, 2009) identify the success of learning using mnemonics.
The Method of Loci where items to be remembered are associated with locations familiar to the learner dates back to the first century BC (Baddeley, Eysenck & Anderson, 2014). Although it is known as an historical method for memory, there can be application of such a technique in a range of modern learning contexts. Equally as effective as the Method of Loci is the 'pegword system' (Wang & Thomas 2000). This system associates items to be remembered with 'pegwords' that rhyme, for example, each number has a rhyming word that links to an item to be remembered.
Many of these memory strategies include visual imagery. One example is 'mind maps' which are diagrams in which related items are linked to a central item. Similarly, are 'concept maps', diagrams which represent concepts from general to more specific concepts. Experimental research that investigated the impact of concept maps on medical students' learning found that their learning was enhanced when using concept maps (Farrand, Hussain & Hennessy, 2002; Veronese, Richards, Pernar, Sullivan & Schwartzstein, 2013).
Another area of research identifies the positive impact of learning with gestures on students' recall and memory. In a primary school second language learning context, the learning of a Japanese story with gestures and the viewing of those gestures during students' re-tell of that story significantly increased the quantity of Japanese that students could produce, including more of the story content (Wilks-Smith, 2019).
This range of research, although not exhaustive, provides some examples of successful strategies that improve memory and learning. In current times, there remains a need for learners to have a range of memory strategies to learn and to strengthen their learning. Students can directly benefit from a focus on learning strategies that improve memory and through an overall emphasis on explicitly addressing memory as a building block for learning (Kelly, 2019). It is timely to focus on how we learn and examine the importance of memory in that process of learning.
One group of teachers from a school in Melbourne, Australia, sought to embed memory into their pedagogical practice and document the impact it had on students' learning. The study is a pilot project on the impact of memory strategies used by these teachers across a range of primary and secondary school classes, in a range of curriculum areas. The data reported in this paper is teachers' self-reported findings and reflections on their experiences of embedding memory strategies into their practice. This pilot project highlights the importance of memory and the teaching of strategies to enhance memory. It also provides new knowledge about how teachers use memory strategies in practice to optimise recall by learners and to improve their overall teaching capacity.
Aim and research questions
This pilot project was carried out in response to a request from the participating school and teachers for professional learning and tailored support to embed memory strategies into their teaching. This was an area of professional need self-identified by the school. The aim of the project was to embed research about memory and classroom teaching strategies that focus on memory into teachers' practice. Five participating teachers used action research to explore strategies to improve students' memory with the aim of improving student learning. The pilot project aims to showcase these five teachers' journeys implementing memory for learning strategies in their classrooms in a variety of year levels and across a range of curriculum areas, to inform future pedagogy and practice. It contributes these context-specific examples of research-informed teaching practice to the existing body of literature. The aim of sharing the pilot study is to remind current teachers about memory strategies for teaching and learning and to showcase a range of examples of practice across a variety of curriculum areas, as well as to introduce these to new pre-service teachers.
The guiding research questions for the study were:
- What memory for learning strategies worked or didn't work in each classroom context?
- What are the implications of the findings for pedagogy and practice?
The project was granted ethical approval from RMIT University and The Department of Education and Training Victoria.
The pilot project was conducted in one government co-educational college in a northern suburb of Melbourne in Australia. It is a K-12 college comprising of approximately 3,000 students. It is a unique school that offers students the opportunity to continue their education at the same college from kindergarten until the end of secondary school. It was founded in 2014 and is located in a growth corridor of new housing development. The college proudly embraces a wide range of educational innovations and strives to exemplify 21st Century learning.
Teachers from primary and secondary levels at the college were invited to be participants in the pilot project. The aims of the study were communicated with teachers at a staff meeting and explained in a plain language statement and consent form. Participation was voluntary and was not an expectation of the school.
Seventeen teachers gave consent to participate in the study, however, only five teachers continued their participation for the two school terms of the project. This article reports on the experiences of those five teachers.
The research design used for this project is action research (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011). An ongoing, systematic cycle of action research was used by teachers to implement a new teaching strategy with a focus on improving memory for learning. Action research was deemed appropriate as it is a situationally responsive method to provide authenticity and voice to research that impacts on practice (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011). Action research in this study involved cycles of planning, acting by implementing plans, observing, gathering feedback, reflecting on the implementation of the new strategy and students' learning, modifying the plan based on findings and then repeating the cycle. The following image depicts the processes involved.
The action research also included 'an approach in which the action researcher and a client collaborate in the diagnosis of the problem and in the development of a solution based on the diagnosis' (Bryman and Bell, 2011, p.414). In the context of this project, the action researchers were the teachers and the collaborators were teacher-researchers who provided professional learning, supported by in-class observations, feedback and advice to the teachers throughout the project. The authors of this paper were the teacher-researchers.
The Timperley Evidence-Based Professional Learning Cycle (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar & Fung, 2007; Timperley, 2010) was also an important part of the action research. The use of the cycle enables evaluation of the impact of professional learning on teachers' practice and also on students' learning outcomes through the scope of its five dimensions:
- What do my students need to be able to know and be able to do?
- What do I need to know and be able to do in response to my students' needs?
- How do I go about deepening my knowledge and refining my skills?
- What happens in the classroom when I apply my learning?
- What impact did my learning have on my practice and on my students' learning?
The pilot project focused on working with teachers, their responses to the research, their own ideas for memory practice in their teaching contexts and pedagogy. Teachers were presented with the memory-enhancing strategies identified in the literature review, were encouraged to trial one or more within their own classroom practice and measure effectiveness using their current assessment practices. Research and readings were posted regularly on a Google Community site for all participating teachers to access which was the major forum for the sharing of ideas and discussions. The Google Community site was populated with succinct and engaging material on learning and the importance of focussing on teaching strategies that directly improved memory. The aim was for teachers to interact with the resources and translate the research and strategies recommended to their own classroom practice. Additionally, teachers participated in a professional development seminar with Dr. Lynne Kelly, author of the seminal text 'The Memory Code' (Kelly, 2016b) as the guest speaker, who focused on 'Memory methods for education' which provided a research knowledge base for teachers.
Dr Kelly's contribution to the field of memory research can be understood from her TEDx talk: Modern memory, ancient methods (16mins 49 secs).
Teachers were mentored directly throughout the project and there was a college-based coordinator who oversaw the project. Research on memory was discussed with the teachers and teaching strategies and activities relevant to their practice were suggested. In addition to bringing research to the teachers, teachers' own ideas were generated through processes of discussion that became stimuli for action. The mentor attended participating teachers' classrooms at their invitation and discussed their pedagogy, examined curriculum documents, and made recommendations for practice. Face-to-face discussions at the school and visiting classrooms as a 'critical friend' were key strategies, each with a focus on improving memory to improve learning. Teachers individually discussed memory pedagogy with the mentor, embedded new memory strategies into their practice, received feedback and reflected together, which in turn informed the next stage of action research, planning, pedagogy and practice. The pilot project culminated with a sharing session of each teacher's project and teachers' written reflections were submitted to the researchers. The data reported in this paper is teachers' self-reported findings and reflections on their experiences of embedding new memory strategies into their practice.
The memory strategies used by teachers in the pilot project included:
- Music and rhythm
- Method of Loci
- Chunking content
- Increase test/retest
- Sans Forgetica font.
A discussion of these strategies and what they looked like in classroom practice are shared in the following section.
Examples of practice
This section of the article discusses each teacher's experiences implementing a new memory strategy into their classroom practice. Each teacher's action research journey was unique to their own context, year level, curriculum area and teaching philosophy, and so unsurprisingly their learnings and reflections reflect this uniqueness. This section provides examples of teaching pedagogy and practice, shares selected teachers' findings and reflections, and discusses implications for future action research and practice. Therefore, each example of practice addresses the two research questions:
- What memory for learning strategies worked or didn't work in each classroom context? and
- What are the implications of the findings for pedagogy and practice?
Memory strategies for music
Two music teachers were already using memory work in their pedagogy and embraced the project for the direction it offered them to build on their current work and provide validity and a platform for their work.
Music teacher 1
The key aim for this project was to embed a memory strategy into a sequence of Year 7 and 8 music lessons that introduced the concept of 'intervals' in western music. Students then used this understanding to navigate the keyboard in relation to the major Blues scale.
A range of memory strategies were taught then trialled with the Year 7 and 8 classes, including visualisation techniques and Method of Loci. The teacher explained that, 'As a class, we have discussed different memory/remembering techniques and how we might apply them to recall the different notes and scales. The class has attempted to use some visualising strategies to help identify the notes within the scale. We have spoken about repeating patterns as well as showing visual displays as examples. Students spent time practising different memory strategies and articulating what they were thinking to assist in recalling the scale. A number of students liked the idea of placing ideas into their 'memory house' (Method of Loci). One student shared that he had matched the visual pattern with features in his kitchen. He then drew a map of his thinking on the board to share with the class. Using features of his kitchen, he was able to map the keyboard layout 'matching' the blues pattern. Another particularly successful memory strategy was using ... iconic music or tones from pop culture to help remember the different intervals. For example, Minor 2nd = Jaws Theme (chromatic), Major 2nd = Happy Birthday, Perfect 5th = Twinkle Twinkle, etc.'
The provision of choice for students to select a memory strategy that they wanted to individually try reflects the teacher's overall teaching philosophy. Having a choice from a range of strategies was motivating for students and empowered them in their learning. When reflecting on the impact of using the memory strategies for learning, the teacher noted, 'It is difficult to say whether this task has improved the memory of students. This process would need to be reinforced with students and tested further along in the unit to check their recall. Some students found it hard to articulate how they were able to remember how to play the Blues scale, which makes it difficult to assess what strategies they are using. As each learner is different, exploring a range of memory strategies and allowing students to practise and apply different strategies to make their own assessments as to what they find most effective would be ideal.'
'The most common strategy within the class that proved effective was the visual aid and looking for repeating visual patterns. Few if any students were able to recognise the pitch of each note in relation to the tonic. Instead, students were far more likely to hear a relationship between each consecutive note in the scale. For example, going up the C minor blues scale, relating each note to the next note. C - Eb (Minor 3rd - Beverly Hills Cop), Eb - F (Major 2nd - Happy Birthday), F - F# (Minor 2nd - Jaws), F# - G (Minor 2nd - Jaws), G - Bb (Minor 3rd - Beverly Hills Cop), Bb - C (Minor 2nd - Happy Birthday).'
The teacher was pleased with the impact that a variety of memory strategies had on students' engagement and their memory for musical patterns. This positive outcome led the teacher to express a desire to continue to embed memory strategies into their teaching pedagogy and practice, explore more memory techniques and allow students to trial them in different areas of their learning. The teacher noted that the short duration of time for explicit teaching with memory strategies made it hard to gauge the effectiveness of the strategies and the impact on students' memory, so an extended period of teaching time using memory strategies would be beneficial.
Music teacher 2
This Year 7 music teacher focussed on a memory strategy to support students playing the Djembe Drums the West African way. Rather than teaching the pattern to the class with a West African vocalisation or a phrase which was common practice, it was taught as a visual sequence, with the teacher describing each sound as they were produced, for example 'bass bass tone tone base mute slap'.
The teacher remarked on the success of the strategy and the speed at which it was picked up by students. When commenting on the development of learning of one student, the teacher said, 'Her main motivation for remembering the pattern was that she really loved learning and playing the pattern and had the movements of her hands visually memorised. She has practiced it over and over, so she is able to play it quickly when recalling it.' The teacher commented on overall increases in students' motivation, success in learning with a visual sequence and a faster rate of learning. As a result, the visual memory strategy will continue to be embedded into the teaching pedagogy of this teacher's music classes.
Memory strategies for humanities
Flashcards and student journals were used in humanities to encourage Year 9 students to develop their metacognitive skills with a particular focus on developing their memory and being conscious of their efforts and the impact on their learning. One explicit memory strategy that was used in humanities was the use of chunking content and including visual/pictorial cues together with text. An example of this technique used by students in their work is shown below.
Students then used self-assessment rubrics to reflect on their knowledge of the new humanities terms and identified the strategies they used to learn them.
Students responded positively to the inclusion of these strategies in humanities and anecdotally, the teacher found them to be a successful strategy to support students' learning of new terms and information. The teacher will continue to include these memory strategies within this context and will explore ways to identify the impact of these memory strategies for learning more formally as part of future teaching practice.
Memory strategies for mathematics
The focus in Year 2 mathematics was on how memory strategies could help students retain addition and subtraction strategies. The teacher shared that '... I've noticed, and I've heard other teachers say many times that students don't remember what we are teaching them. Especially when we come back after school holidays from year to year. It's as if they regress.' The memory strategies used with the teaching of addition and subtraction were 'priming' and 'increase test/retest'.
The teacher explains, 'Priming students means that I'm preparing them before the maths session, for example, in the morning when I go through the visual timetable that outlines the day's sessions, instead of just saying 'in session 3 is maths', I would say 'in session 3 is maths and we will continue learning near doubles'. Another part of priming is priming students with the big picture and how important it is. This means that I put addition and subtraction into context and make it relevant for students, students must understand why and how addition and subtraction is used in everyday life in their world. So, I used a lot of word stories or word problems that the kids could relate to.'
'Increasing test/retest has been as simple as having the students create their own set of addition & subtraction flashcards (based on number facts of 10 and extending these and doubles and near doubles) and having the students test the person next to them at the beginning of a session. Playing games is also another way of incorporating test/retest.' Engaging children in the preparation of test/retest flashcards extended their focus time on the content to be learned and engaged the creativity of students. The teacher shared, 'I find it interesting how so many of the memory strategies can be combined. For example, distribution of practise can include using priming in the morning or test/retest at different times like lunch eating time or end of day reflection so that would mean doing two memory strategies at once, test/retest while using the spacing effect.'
The teacher was very pleased with the test results of students after using the memory strategies in maths. The teacher also noted, 'another important indicator to me is their engagement in maths. My students have a really positive attitude towards maths.' After this pilot project, the teacher commented that 'I am more aware of the importance of memory in learning' and as a result 'I will in future try to factor in memory strategies into planning'. The teacher also acknowledged the benefit from supported professional learning, stating, 'I would like to do more PD (professional development) on learning and memory to improve my knowledge and practise.' These comments identify a wide variety of implications for future pedagogy and practice based on the teachers' experiences in the pilot project.
Memory strategies for science and mathematics
A Year 7 teacher used science and mathematics as areas of focus for this memory study. The teacher made innovative use of flashcards with the Sans Forgetica font to promote memory of new science and maths terms.
The Sans Forgetica font is the first typeface specifically designed to help learners retain more information and remember more. The font was developed by researchers from RMIT University using a learning principle called 'desirable difficulty', where an obstruction is added to the learning process that requires learners to put in just enough effort, leading to better memory retention to promote deeper cognitive processing. Sans Forgetica has varying degrees of 'distinctiveness', created by the gaps and left slant built in, that subvert many of the design principles normally associated with conventional typography. These degrees of distinctiveness cause readers to dwell longer on each word, giving the brain more time to engage in deeper cognitive processing, to enhance information retention.
Sans Forgetica is available for free.
The teacher recognised the importance of 'attention' in memory and learning (Horsley 2016) and found that the use of flashcards with the Sans Forgetica font was a successful method with Year 7 students in science and mathematics. This method will continue to be used by the teacher with future classes.
This paper reported on a pilot project that focused on the implementation of memory strategies grounded by research into the classroom practice of five teachers from a co-educational K-12 college. The project provided the opportunity for teachers to explore memory strategies for learning within their own teaching context. The teachers' action research journeys were shared which provided specific examples of practice using a variety of strategies with a range of year levels, content and curriculum areas. The examples of practice showed benefits for learning with strategies such as music and rhythm, visualisation, pictures, Method of Loci, chunking content, priming, increase test/retest, flashcards, and the Sans Forgetica font. Each teacher commented on their perceived benefits of a focus on teaching memory strategies, however, a limitation of the pilot project is that empirical data was not collected to objectively show that. Teachers shared the view that participation in the project expanded their knowledge of and use of memory strategies and suggested implications for their own future teaching pedagogy and practice based on their experiences. It was disappointing that 17 teachers commenced the pilot but only 5 finished. This was another limitation of the study. The reason for the attrition is unknown however, one possible reason may be that participation in the project did ask something extra of teachers whom already have a very full workload. Another possibility may be some teachers' reluctance to invite teacher-researchers into their classrooms. Despite many teachers not going the extra step in the project to continue professional learning within their own classrooms and provide a culminating report of their experiences and findings, this does not suggest that they did not continue to consider the role of memory strategies in their classrooms or trial the strategies that they were introduced to.
The pilot project showed that there was scope for each teacher to tailor memory strategies for their own teaching-learning context across a range of year levels and curriculum areas. It is anticipated that the implications for practice will extend into teachers' future practice, that there will be a focus on memory when teachers plan, and that there will be learning benefits for students in these classes. Each of these possible implications for practice could be areas for future research. A consideration of 'developmentally appropriate', 'subject appropriate' and 'universally appropriate' memory strategies was often discussed by teachers and could also be a focus of future research. Further research could also include parents, with the hope that they could support some of the memory-enhancing strategies at home. The school was particularly looking for greater parental engagement and so including this aspect in future research would provide this additional gain.
We would like to express our appreciation of the school and of the Principal and teachers that participated in this project and agreed to share their action research journeys with us. We would also like to acknowledge the support provided from the School of Education, RMIT University, who provided the time for the author-researcher staff to undertake this project and provided funding to employ a teacher-psychologist-researcher for this project.
References and further reading
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Baddeley, A., & Longman, D. (1978). The influence of length and frequency of training sessions on the rate of learning to type. Ergonomics, 21, 627-635.
Bangert-Drowns, R., Kulik, J., & Kulik, C. (1991). Effects of frequent classroom testing. Journal of Educational Research, 61, 213-238 .
Bower, G. & Clark, M. (1969). Narrative stories as mediators for serial learning. Psychonomic Science, 14, 181-182.
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Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2011). Research methods in education (7th ed.). USA & Canada: Routledge.
Deutrom, R. (2018). This is the font that can't be forgotten.
Earp, J. (2018). Designing a font to help students remember key information.
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Kelly, L. (2015). Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies. Cambridge University Press.
Kelly, L. (2016a). Monuments for memory - the ten indicators.
Kelly, L. (2016b). The memory code. Allen & Unwin.
Kelly, L. (2019). Memory craft. Allen & Unwin.
Landauer, T., & Bjork, R. (1978). Optimum rehearsal patterns and name learning. In M. Grneberg, P. Morris, & R. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory (pp. 625-632). London: Academic Press.
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McPherson, F. (2004). The memory key: Unlock the secrets to remembering. New York: Barnes & Noble.
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RMIT University (2019). Sans Forgetica wins prestigious design award.
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Veronese, C., Richards, J., Pernar, L., Sullivan, A., & Schwartzstein, R. (2013). A randomised pilot study of the use of concept maps to enhance problem-based learning among first-year medical students. Medical Teacher, 35, E1478-E1484 .
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Wilks-Smith, N. (2019). Learning with intentional teaching gestures: Japanese foreign language output in the primary years. (PhD), University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.
Yue, C., Castel, A., & Bjork, R. (2013). When disfluency is - and is not - a desirable difficulty: The influence of typeface clarity on metacognitive judgments and memory. Memory & Cognition, 41(2), 229-241.
How to cite this article - Johnson, R., Ginsberg, S. & Wilks-Smith, N. (2020). Enhancing memory for learning: Teachers' journeys of implementing memory strategies in their classrooms. Scan, 39(1).