How to make learning stick

Author: Jake Hunton
Published: 06/09/2020

Embedding Learning

A few years ago I used to set ‘retrieval strength’ success criteria to measure how well my students could recall the target language they’d been taught in the lesson.

At the start of the lesson I would display my success criteria on a nice, colourful PowerPoint slide, for example: 'To recall at least 8-10 words and phrases to do with holidays.'

I would begin by covering up the English meanings and asking the students to note down as many words as they could. Towards the end of the lesson I would do the same, ensuring that an eagle-eyed observer in the corner of the classroom could see that the students had made progress.

A few days later however, the students struggled to recall these words and phrases and we had to move on to the next topic. Although the students had made progress in the previous lesson, it wasn’t deeply embedded enough.

With the changes to exams, it's more important than ever to make learning really stick. The attached resource brings together my top 20 ideas for helping students to embed their learning into their long-term memories. Here are five examples:

  1. Keyword method. This system links the sound of a word to an image. For example, to learn that the French word for ‘hen’ is ‘poule’, students could visualise a hen flapping about in a ‘pool’. Project a vocab list and set a time limit to see how many words students can memorise this way.

  2. Just ask why. Write down an item of vocab with the English and ask ‘why’ to prompt students to elaborate creatively on why the word means what it means. For example: ‘El taller’ is Spanish for workshop – why is this true?’ ‘Because Santa is taller than all of the elves in the workshop.’

  3. Free recall. Use the power of retrieval practice (using testing as a means to learning). When students have finished a task in class, train them to turn to a blank page and write everything they can remember about a topic or tense covered previously.

  4. Syllabus challenge. Project the subject content from the exam specification or a scheme of work and choose five different grammar points or topics. Ask students to write everything they know from memory about each one. 

  5. Learning mat creation. At the end of a unit of work ask students to create and illustrate a learning mat or concept map on the topic. The following week you could ask them to recreate their learning map from memory or memorise and recreate each other’s maps.

You can see all 20 teaching ideas in his downloadable resource.

Jake Hunton

Jake Hunton is a head of languages and author of 'Fun Learning Activities for Modern Foreign Languages'.