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Geographical learning and memory

“Learning involves a lasting change in pupils’ capabilities or understanding.”

ITT Core Content Framework, DfE (2019)

Topics on this page:

  • Memory
  • The process of learning
  • Applying information about memory to geography teaching: cognitive overload; clear explanation; dual coding; active engagement; retrieval practice; spaced practice
  • Observing ‘memory’ in lessons
  • Reading
  • Discussions about memory and learning geography
  • Further reading

Learning geography is not simply about amassing facts and gaining more information, that is factual knowledge. It is about achieving a deep understanding of geographical concepts and ideas, that is conceptual knowledge

It is also about developing competence in geographical skills, such as using maps and geographical information systems (GIS), and undertaking fieldwork and geographical enquiries; this is procedural knowledge. Achievement in geography requires students to learn all three of these forms of knowledge.

The GA, in its Curriculum Framework (see Rawding 2022, Fig. 2) sets out different forms of geographical knowledge:

  • Knowing that: geographical key concepts
  • Knowing how: geographical practice
  • Knowing how to apply: geographical application
  • Knowing about: substantive knowledge

Refer to Geography knowledge, concepts and skills for further information.

In recent years cognitive science has made a significant contribution to our understanding of how people learn. Teachers should engage with these findings critically in the context of their teaching.

Memory

The ITT core content framework (DfE, 2019) makes frequent reference to memory and explains that new teachers should learn how to teach in a way that enables students to remember what they’ve been taught.

Memory and learning are inseparable. There is working memory, which is the temporary workspace where we manipulate and process information; and long-term memory which is a knowledge store. Working memory has limited capacity; it is used for processing new information and is the place where thinking occurs. Long-term memory is infinite and stores information accumulated over time. In order to learn, students must transfer information from working memory (where it is processed) to long-term memory (from where it can be retrieved).

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is a well-established theory that is concerned with the architecture of memory and the brain. It tells us that working memory (or short-term memory) has limited capacity to process information and can be a bottleneck for learning. Cognitive load is the burden placed upon working memory. 

There are different forms of cognitive load. The intrinsic load is the complexity of the material. The extraneous load is anything that distracts the working memory, such as unnecessarily complicated instructions. Teachers should manage the intrinsic load by explaining things well, and teaching should be in small chunks so not as to overload memory capacity. 

If tasks are too cognitively demanding, or students are given too much information at once, it can exceed the capacity of working memory and have a negative impact on learning. Teachers need to be wary of this, but nevertheless provide challenge for students; keeping such factors in balance is the professional judgement a teacher makes in relation to their students.

CLT is not without controversy. Much of the research on which DfE recommendations have been based has involved studies of teaching mathematical and scientific problems and it is questionable whether this all has universal application. Also, what constitutes cognitive load is subjective and varies from one learner to another. You should bear such provisos in mind; teachers should never adopt ideas about learning uncritically.

The process of learning

Geographical learning has taken place when a student has the relevant geographical information to hand in their long-term memory. Long-term memory holds the accumulation of the geographical understanding and skills. 

It is much more than a mere archive of factual knowledge; it is everything that a student uses to understand the world. When asked for some geographical information, they bring the relevant knowledge into their working memory as it is needed, for example to solve a problem. It is the essential background information in long-term memory that enables a student to think geographically.

There are no quick fixes for learning. If students cram their brains with information in a short time (rote learning), it goes into working memory but is soon forgotten. The diagram shows the findings of research by Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885). He found that people forget most ‘learning’ within a few days, shown as a forgetting curve. But he also found that if learning is revisited it takes us longer to forget. 

Therefore, if we want to remember something, we need to come back to it frequently. Researchers have also shown that when students are required to make an effort to retrieve information from memory by thinking hard it strengthens recall.

The act of thinking back to bring information to mind is known as retrieval practice. Cognitive science tells us that memory has a ‘strength’, in terms of how easily something can be recalled and how deeply information is embedded. 

When content is studied and recalled, both types of memory strength increase. It is thought that by recalling previously learnt content, retrieval practice strengthens memory of key concepts or information. Also, it makes students aware of gaps in their understanding.

Retrieval practice could be a powerful tool in an information-rich subject such as geography to ensure that the key geographical ideas can be retained and used in future work. It has been recognised by geography teachers as a useful approach to aid learning and you can read more about this in Retrieval practice. 

Teachers use strategies such as ‘low stakes’ tests and quizzes that focus on the key concepts they want students to learn to help students to remember and consolidate learning. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has shown that the evidence for using quizzes is generally positive, although it is not fully conclusive because of the lack of available studies. 

This is sometimes referred to as the testing effect, which is the idea that more knowledge is retained following a series of tests requiring it to be recalled from memory compared with simply re-teaching the material.

The EEF does raise questions about whether retrieval practice is as effective for more complex or subtle learning beyond rote factual recall. This indicates that it might be less effective for more complex aspects of geographical thinking.

Research indicates that students must review information regularly to move it into long-term memory and form connections between ideas. This is known as spaced practice which applies the principle that material is more easily learnt when broken apart by intervals of time. It is thought that the interval prohibits information being held in the working memory and it is more likely to be embedded in long-term memory. 

As outlined above, if students revisit the key concepts, ideas, or skills when they are almost forgotten, it is thought it might improve learning retention. The EEF has found that spaced practice can have a small positive impact on learning outcomes but at present there is insufficient research to be conclusive.

Many geography teachers recognise that key subject understanding and skills that are not regularly used are easily forgotten. They use the principles of spaced practice for students to build up this core geographical knowledge. Ordnance Survey map-reading skills are an example where spaced practice can pay dividends.

Applying information about memory to geography teaching

As a new teacher, you should think carefully how you can use this information about memory in your teaching to help students to learn geography. While the EEF has identified approaches that have the potential to improve learning and memory, they are not as yet fully proven. One of the limitations in many of the research studies is that they were often not delivered by teachers in usual classroom conditions.

Here are some of the important aspects for new teachers to consider:

A key challenge for geography teachers is that working memory is limited and it can be overwhelmed if students are presented with too many things to think about at once. As a keen geographer who loves the subject, it is easy to get overenthusiastic and include unnecessarily detailed information. The solution is to minimise unnecessary detail to reduce the cognitive load and ensure that working memory remains focused.

If the cognitive load needed for a task exceeds the capacity of working memory, then the task will not be completed successfully. To keep within the capacity of students’ working memory, consider the amount of factual information you provide in a lesson. Students can only cope with a limited number of pieces of new information at one time. 

Experts give different limits; some say as few as four, others say between five and seven. Be selective and focus on the important concepts and key information that you want students to learn in a lesson. Avoid non-essential and peripheral information (extraneous load) as it is unhelpful to the learning at hand and you are less likely to overwhelm working memory and impair learning.

Long-term memory is more ‘infinite’, so if students can call on knowledge in their long-term memory, they ease the load on their working memory. As students become more expert in a topic, the knowledge builds in long-term memory and this helps the working memory process more complex information. Therefore, the more a student knows, the easier it becomes to learn more.

When you introduce new geographical terminology or a new geographical idea, take your time to explain it clearly and in a way that makes it memorable. Deliberately use structured talk to develop students’ understanding: analogies, stories, examples, metaphors and supporting visuals can be a considerable help. This is explored further in Exposition and explaining.

When students learn they process visual and verbal information through different parts of the brain, so they can use either a word or a picture to remember a concept. Therefore, it follows that it can help learning if geography teachers connect visuals and words (written or spoken) when they present information to students. They should use both visual images as well as talk to support students and help them to retrieve from memory and understand more information at greater depth without overloading working memory. Care must be taken not to introduce irrelevant illustrations that distract rather then enhance learning.

Powell (2023) explains how drawing a diagram while verbally explaining it can be an effective strategy for helping teachers manage the intrinsic load. The teacher can build up a diagram step by step on the whiteboard, or reveal it in stages on a PowerPoint slide; in this way the students’ attention is drawn to exactly the part the teacher is explaining. Gradually building the complexity of a diagram gives the teacher opportunities for questioning and clarification at each stage, and to check for understanding before moving on.

 

There are also the benefits of drawing by students. Fernandes et al. (2018) found that drawing helped students to recall words as well as concepts and definitions. Encouraging students to make sketches and maps and incorporate drawings into their explanations is a good way to help students to learn geographical ideas.

Deconstruct what you want students to learn into component parts. Break down the subject content into manageable ‘bites’ and present students with a few ideas, processes or pieces of information at a time. Build up ideas gradually during the lesson, pausing often to check understanding. For example, create a series of steps to make a topic or process more manageable for students, or for you to model what you want them to do. Find about about modelling in Modelling and demonstration.

Thinking takes place in working memory. You must ensure students actively engage and think hard about new geographical ideas and information if they are to remember them; passive listening and reading are not enough. When students answer questions, discuss new information with others or write about something in their own words, they are more likely to remember it than by copying text. Find out about active engagement in Independent practice: learning activities for geography classrooms.

We have seen that this involves students recalling something learned in the past and bringing it back to mind. In each case the information must be actively retrieved by the student themselves. You need to ensure that students think hard about the information they are to retrieve from memory it because it is the ‘struggle’ to bring it back to mind that boosts learning. 

A low-stakes test/quiz is often used but you should consider other alternatives such as: teacher questioning, self-testing, student-student questioning, making notes from memory, concept maps, group discussion, writing an essay. All are explored further in Retrieval practice.

This is the use of tasks that require students to recall prior learning from memory over increasing time intervals. Spaced practice is more effective than massed practice, which is intensive study for a short period of time. To get the most benefit you should plan so that students repeatedly come back to key geographical concepts on a regular basis so that they become embedded in students’ long-term memory. Teaching key geographical ideas and concepts just once is pointless, you must continually revisit them.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve gets flatter at each repeat with greater retention of learning, showing the benefits when retrieval is spaced out over time. What is less clear from the evidence is the amount of time that needs to elapse between ‘spacing’. 

You should ask students to recall important geographical information frequently in lessons, and also revisit it ‘spaced out’ over weeks or months rather than ‘cramming’ it into a single intense period. Students should be explicitly taught about spaced practice as a study skill, so they can apply the approach themselves to their self-study and revision. 

Observing ‘memory’ in lessons

When you observe experienced geography teachers, pay attention to how they help students to learn geography. Take particular note of the strategies they use to help students to embed key geographical ideas in memory. Note how they continually revisit key geographical ideas and concepts, as well as skills and terminology, so that these become part of students’ ‘geographical repertoire’. Observe the strategies they use for retrieval practice and how they space practice.

Consider how they give students opportunities to actively engage with new ideas they have been taught and design these so that students have to think hard about the geography and embed it in their memory. Observe how they ask students to apply what they have learned in different contexts so that they properly assimilate new learning and how they use homework assignments to give students time to practice what they know independently.

Also look out for how teachers avoid cognitive overload. What is the key information they focus on during a single lesson? How do they present that information? Does it involve explaining clearly and dual coding? Do they chunk the information as they present it to students?

At the start of lessons, do teachers anticipate that students may have forgotten information since the previous session? How do they find this out? And how do they approach relearning and remembering to help engrain it in their memory, if this is needed?

Reading

To find out about the evidence of the application of cognitive science to learning read the summary report from the EEF – Cognitive science approaches in the classroom: a review of the evidence.

Following on from your own observations of experienced teachers, these two readings by geography teachers will give further examples of ways to consider students’ memory in your lessons. The Enser article has a good list of references for you to follow up in greater depth.

  • Enser, M. (2020) ‘Interweaving geography: retrieval, spacing and interleaving in the geography curriculum’, Teaching Geography, Spring 2020.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge. Chapter 14 pp180-1, in which he discusses how theory about memory influences how he teaches geography.

You should also read these articles:

Discussions about memory and learning geography

Take all the opportunities you can to discuss with experienced teachers and your mentor the ideas about learning that are discussed on this page. Focus your discussions on examples within their geography teaching that illustrate the ideas in practice.

  • For a topic they are currently teaching, how to manage the amount of information in order not to overload working memory.
  • How does the teacher try to make new information memorable to students?
  • How do they combat the effect of the forgetting curve?
  • How they ‘chunk’ learning in a lesson. Discuss the resources they use for this.
  • Situations or topics where they consider it important to ask students to retrieve information from memory to strengthen recall.
  • Examples from the lessons you have observed where spaced practice was important to ensure that students gained a secure understanding of the key concepts.
  • How they use plenaries at the end of a lesson for students to recall and consolidate learning.

From your lesson observations and discussions such as these you should accumulate and refine a range of strategies that you can use in your lessons. Also, collate ideas from experienced geography teachers for powerful analogies and examples that you can use to help make learning memorable.

Further reading