How to help your pupils retain knowledge

Updated: Jul 6, 2020


Pupils can’t become fluent if they keep forgetting what they’ve been taught. Here’s how you can make sure that pupils retain knowledge and build fluency.

How many times have you faced blank faces when you refer to something you know your pupils should be able to do?

Maybe you’ve taught this concept and know your pupil has competently carried out the procedure before. Yet, now your pupil apparently has no idea what you’re talking about.

So, what do you do when a pupil forgets? And more importantly, how can you help them retain learning and become fluent?

What do we know about how children learn?

Cognitive neuroscience teaches us about the importance of deep and sustained learning by helping pupils make as many links as possible between new learning and prior learning.

Nearly 100 years ago, Piaget referred to the way learners organise their understanding as schemas. As they encounter new knowledge over time, pupils adapt their existing schemas in order to incorporate new understanding.

Taking the time to explore many different aspects of a musical concepts and applying it to a range of different scenarios and contexts, helps pupils build and strengthen connections in their brain. The greater the number of connections created, the more secure their learning will be.

So, why do learners forget? Understanding the forgetting curve

No matter how deeply you teach a musical topic, despite all of the opportunities you give pupils to build connections, however carefully your lessons are sequenced to provide chances to apply their knowledge in different contexts, pupils have an amazing ability to fail to recall prior learning right when they need it.

There’s a reason for this. To get to the bottom of it, let’s look at ‘the forgetting curve’, first described by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885.

In his work, Ebbinghaus describes a decrease in the brain’s ability to retain memory over time. Within the first few days of learning, you’ll find that memory loss is rapid. After that, the rate of forgetting starts to decrease and become much slower. So the question is: how can we harness this research to help us improve our pupils’ ability to remember?

He goes on to describe the concept of over-learning: revisiting topics at regular intervals to secure them in memory. With over-learning, the forgetting curve looks more like this:

When you look at the bigger learning picture, it’s clear that providing pupils with regular opportunities to revisit prior learning is a more effective teaching strategy overall. Our Learn4Performance approach supports this through ongoing retrieval practice. Providing pupils with an online platform ensures you can stay in touch with them between lessons and supports an ongoing musical learning journey.

How can we overcome retention problems?

The good news is, with a mastery approach to teaching, music lessons focus on exploring and consolidating new learning by giving children opportunities to use their conceptual reasoning skills and apply their knowledge to a range of problems of increasing complexity.

Daniel Willingham describes memory as the residue of thought. Pupils remember what they think about, so we need to make sure our pupils are thinking about music while they’re practicing.

Forgetting is a natural part of learning. By connecting new and prior learning and building fluency into your teaching practice, you can help your pupils to retain knowledge and master new skills in music.


McCourt, M. (2019).Teaching for mastery.Suffolk, United Kingdom: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Willingham, D. (2009).Why don’t students like school?San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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