Using prior knowledge to tackle memory retention and reduce cognitive load

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Date published 25 March 2021

When learning languages, students can become overloaded by the introduction of new knowledge. In this blog, Sabrina Castro unpacks how she’s using insights from her professional development to tackle memory retention and maximise learning.

As a modern foreign language teacher, I found that my students often failed to see the benefits of being able to speak different languages. On more than one occasion I have heard in the classroom comments such as “languages are too hard” and “I don’t need them as everyone can speak English”.

Confronted by that reality, I knew I needed to gain more understanding of strategies that I could use to make learning more efficient to overcome the initial barrier that languages are ‘too hard’.

A persistent concern for teachers is students’ memory retention. When learning languages, students struggle to retain new grammar points or learn new vocabulary when presented with new knowledge. It takes time, sometimes years, to master those linguist skills.

With parts of the professional development I have undertaken with Ambition focusing on improving memory retention, I hoped to tackle this problem and maximise learning during lesson time. I want to make sure the resources and activities used in class were aimed at improving the students’ memory skills and their ability to manipulate the target language.

"After studying how chunking can aid the formation of high-level schemas, I decided to present new language using prior knowledge as a way to reduce the cognitive load."

Using prior knowledge to build new knowledge

Whilst pre-reading for the module, it struck me how little I knew about how memory works. I did not know about cognitive load theory and the limitation of the working memory when trying to form new thought patterns, or ‘schemas’.

If building knowledge were like building a house, then schemas are the foundations we build upon, and they need to be strong. If those schemas are not consolidated, the house becomes unstable when topics get more complex. Prior knowledge also helps students to learn more complex topics, reducing the cognitive load.

This made me evaluate the way in which I introduced new knowledge to students. I had previously presented vocabulary lists as isolated items, rather than using prior knowledge to aid automatisation. Then, through choral repetition, we practised the pronunciation of those words.

However, presenting long lists of vocabulary and teaching the grammar to 'glue' those chunks together overloaded the students’ working memories. I was not making the best use of prior knowledge and the long-term memory to help my students optimise their learning.

After studying how chunking can aid the formation of high-level schemas, I decided to present new language using prior knowledge as a way to reduce the cognitive load.

This has sped up fluency as students actively use their prior knowledge as an anchor to make the language stick, making those foundations (or schemas) strong, and allowing them to build new knowledge in the future.


Applying the findings

These findings have had a wide impact across the department. Whilst chunking is not a revolutionary method in teaching, we now actively promote it in the department, as we know it will lead to building more confidence in our students when speaking, writing, reading and listening.

We now use previously-taught content to chunk language, so the students are actively using their prior knowledge of foreign languages to tackle the complexities of learning new vocabulary or grammar.

We have included chunking in their knowledge books and, even though there is a still a vocabulary glossary, now they have the option to see how those words fit in chunks, making it easier for them to apply that content.

Our students are using the knowledge books in lessons all the time and, little by little, they are finding learning languages not only accessible but also enjoyable.

This was also acknowledged by some parents during parents’ evening, as they also said how much their children were enjoying Spanish and they wanted them to pursue studying a language in their GCSEs.

When growing up, I did not have much access to technology and learning resources were limited, but I was very lucky to be accepted in a secondary school where the teachers were excellent practitioners. Inspired by their example, I hope that the knowledge of educational theories gained through my professional development will allow me to positively impact my pupils’ achievement in languages and, in turn, improve their life chances.

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Sabrina Castro
Lead Practitioner for Modern Foreign Languages, Aldersley High School

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