5 Teaching Strategies That Boost a Student’s Working Memory & Retention

You just taught the perfect lecture. You were perfectly clear; you have a thorough grasp on the topic. There is no way your students weren’t perfectly in step with you. But then tomorrow comes, and wait… your students don’t seem to have even been there for your perfect lecture. What? You know you covered all of the skills that your students now appear to have never heard of. What possibly went wrong? You swear your students should know the things you taught them the day before.

improve working memory

For many teachers, this is a huge problem. You need to keep a class moving along to meet standards and to finish your curriculum by the end of the year, but how can you move the class along when your students seem to keep forgetting all of the skills you are perfectly teaching them?

Recently, one of Reading Horizons Teacher Trainers, Jay Kelly, presented a wonderful webinar for Reading Horizons in which he offered these five teaching strategies for helping students retain the instruction they are given:

1. Teach Explicitly

You may not think that students need you to explicitly point out how what you are teaching relates to what they already know… but they do need you to do this. Especially students that struggle. It might be more efficient to skip over some background information and assume that students already know it, but when you assume they know the background information and in actuality they don’t… the new material will go right over their head. You need to point out how new material connects to past concepts you have taught.

2. Bundle Modalities

Although Jay said that each of the strategies listed is essential to quality teaching, this is the one he said he would choose if he could only pick one. It sounds technical and scary, but what bundling modalities really is, is "multisensory instruction." But, “multisensory instruction” means something different to everyone. What Jay is referring to when he says "multisensory instruction" is this: teach one concept or skill at a time, wrap as many senses around that concept at a time, as close in time as possible. Not only does this method help your students build new brian connections, but it also engages them in learning and helps keep their attention during class (which is also going to help them retain what is taught).

(Here is an example of effective multisensory instruction)

3. Create Feedback Loops

One way to ensure that your students did indeed understand your perfect lecture is to create feedback loops. Ask your students what they learned. Ask them what was challenging. Ask them what you asked them to do. Don’t just assume that your students understood your perfect lecture… ask them if they understood it. (Jay offers a great idea for getting this feedback in his webinar). The only way to find out if your instruction was as effective as you thought it was is to get the feedback of your students.

4. Promote Peer to Peer Coaching

This method is effective because it forces students to use their working memory. If you get them to explain what you just taught them to their peers immediately following your instruction, your students are using what they were just taught and exercising their working memory. This will further enforce your instruction in their mind and it can also give you an extra opportunity to get feedback about your instruction as you walk around the room and listen to their explanations. 

5. Teach Concisely  

Teachers can be prone to talking a lot. Often when students don’t seem to understand your instruction, it’s tempting to keep talking… to say it again only slower and louder. But… as Jay perfectly stated: “The confusion that we cause by saying too much is far more detrimental than the confusion caused by saying too little.” If your students are giving you a lost look. Don’t just talk more. You will overload their minds, which can prevent them from remembering any of your instruction. You may even want to have them review past material for the rest of class and work on the new concept the next day when they have a fresh mind.

Click here to listen to the full webinar for free! ›

After listening to Jay's webinar, one K-3 teacher wrote us saying:

“I shared it as in-service with 6 staff members and we all agreed it was the best presentation on working memory we had seen to date. It immediately changed two ways we instructed our first and second grade groups and then kicked ourselves that we had never thought of it before. One thing we immediately did was shut up! Too much information is more detrimental than not enough. WOW! The second thing was to wrap around as many senses as possible as close in time as possible – we dumb bunnies had used all our senses but had them all spread out. What a difference two changes have made.”


  • Dr. Sanford Aranoff

    Excellent ideas. Here are some books with some more ideas on good teaching: Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better Rational Thinking, Government Policies, Science, and Living. Rational thinking starts with clearly stated principles, continues with logical deductions, and then examines empirical evidence to possibly modify the principles. When we stress the principles and evidence, students understand and remember better.

  • carroll

    yes I totally agree It is about them and we must go to them where and when and how they are most receptive Great ideas Thanks for sharing Hope more educators and parents try coaching and being with the students like you are suggesting I know it works

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Feb 24 2012

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