The Ghost of Memory: Revision and retention for ‘A Christmas Carol’

24 Mar 2017

christmas carol memory

“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.

“Remember it!” cried Scrooge with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”

My Year 11 group initially studied ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the first term of Year 10. Three weeks ago we dusted off Marley’s chains and began revising it, eight weeks in advance of their exam. My opening gambit was deliberately provocative: each student was presented with a card and instructed to write all they could “recollect” about the novel. The image that opens this post was all they had to work on. Would they be able to “walk it blindfold?”

An unqualified, resounding, epic, no. One of my most sweaty and awkward teacher moments for some time, the glaring panic and void of sparsely commented cards that surrounded the room seemed to unite in an orchestra of mocking. The walls closed in. I went full Scrooge on them: “”Remove me!” I exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”

Once I had calmed down slightly a dusty memory returned to haunt me: The Ghost of the forgetting curve:


This has been appearing in various manifestations since was initially introduced in 1885 by the excellently named Hermann Ebbinghaus.  Effectively the curve implies that newly learned knowledge rapidly dissipates unless the material is consciously reviewed. Ultimately  around 70% of information that what we have been told or read will vanish quickly, while the last 30% will go over time. What is clear is that without revisiting learned information periodically, it rapidly vanishes. Our job as teachers is ultimately to hone and adapt strategies that can slow this rate of forgetting, ensuring that students can hold onto information for sustainable periods of time. Now in my own teacher training I seem to recall lots on learning styles and engagement, but very limited input on memory and retention of knowledge. Interesting. Now that GCSE structures have changed, it becomes even more important.

No wonder my Year 11’s couldn’t recollect much from the novel. They are building themselves towards 8 hours and 15 minutes of final examinations in English alone, overwhelmed by a wide range of poems, two plays and a novel. They are bombarded with information on a daily basis, how can they possible remember information from a year ago?  Yet in the next eight weeks I need them to relearn and revisit the novel, and be ready to write about it in a closed book exam.

What prevented a full scale breakdown  was delving into the teaching and learning bookshelf and retrieving the splendid ‘Make it Stick’ by Peter C Brown, Henry L. Roediger and Mark A McDaniel. This is brilliant read and a roadmap for how to encourage meaningful revision strategies with students. What resonates from this, as of so much of current educational thinking, is the value of low stakes testing and returning to information to increase retention potential:

forgetting curve twoNow the void of knowledge my students recall perfectly validates the research and suggests my teaching of ‘A Christmas Carol’ has been fundamentally flawed. While to say I have ignored it completely would be doing myself an injustice, but we certainly haven’t returned to it in any meaningful fashion. The students have sat Language mocks, not Literature, so there has been no meaningful testing on the novel. As a consequence  the students memories have been almost wiped, much like Scrooge himself. I taught it, gave myself a pat on the back, then marched on with the rest of the densely populated curriculum. I justified this to myself by claiming there was no time: no time to go back, no time to recall and retrieve. This has huge implications for my own teaching moving forward, and for the way that a curriculum needs to be delivered. What I should have been doing is ensuring regular revisiting of the novel, in the form of low stakes  testing.

Now hope resonates in the principal of how quickly students can relearn information. My job now is to delve into their dusty memories of ‘A Christmas Carol’, then use the remaining time well to ensure that they are ready for the exam.

Repetition of key concepts: “Repeated effortful recall or practice helps integrate learning into mental models” ‘Make it Stick pg 101

The first step was to come up with five key quotations that I wanted students to know from each stave. We would then revise the novel chronologically, spending a few lessons on each stave. As the students will be presented with an extract in their exam and expected to demonstrate their knowledge of the novel, these lessons would be based around important extracts from each stave. At the start of each stave section, they would be given time to annotate the five key quotations.  These quotations would then be repeated frequently throughout the lessons, with students asked to note what points they would make about them in the exam:


A lot of lessons start with me pugnaciously pointing at alarmed Year 11 students demanding quotations from them, then using other students to make the language/structure points about the quotations. Then I generated some key context points and phrases, an area of studying the novel that the students have really struggle with. This is shared with the constant reminders to students that they need to ensure that it is relevant to the points raised in their response:

  1. Contextually this is significant because…
  2. This embodies Victorian attitudes to…
  3. Dickens employs this to make a comment about…
  4. Arguably Dickens is using this as a means to…
  5. Victorian society is encapsulated here in…

We are gradually developing independence in approaching the extracts. Now they are given it with a five minute timer on the board and asked to individually read and identify the quotations they would use and language points they might make.

 Memory Cues: “The versatility of mnemonic devices is almost endless. What they hold in common is a structure of some kind that is deeply familiar and whose elements can be easily linked to the target information to be remembered.” ‘Make it Stick’ pg 189.

I needed to think carefully to distill what is essential for the students to be thinking about when they write their response in the exam. I then need this to be memorable for them, so they can quickly recall what makes a successful answer. They need to SCROOGE it:

  • Structure (Have I explored the structure of the novel? Have I linked to how the characters/theme has developed?)
  • Chronological order (Have I worked through the novel in chronological order? Have I arrived at the extract in the order of the novel? Have I explored why this is important?)
  • Relate to context (Have I included relevant parts of context?)
  • Overview (Have I started my response with an overview about the character or theme?)
  • Oh Dickens (Have I used Dickens throughout my answer?)
  • Go to words and methods (Have I picked out the impact of language and words in my answer? Am I highlighting the techniques Dickens has used?)
  • Evidence (Have I built in quotations I have learnt throughout each paragraph?)

The idea is that the students will write out the SCROOGE acronym before they start writing and then tick off the elements they complete as they work through:


Deliberate Practice: “The striving, failure, problem solving, and renewed attempts that characterise deliberate practice build the new knowledge, physiological adaptations, and complex mental models required to attain ever higher levels” ‘Make it Stick’ pg 185

All this memory work and fancy acronyms are splendid but ultimately useless unless the students can write in exam conditions effectively. So each week there is a thirty minute exam style task, that approaches an unseen extract and question. The idea is that it is the chance to demonstrate progress from the work completed. I write alongside the students then we share some answers the next lesson and explore the effective areas. I find writing this with students very powerful, allowing me to walk through my own through process with them the next lesson. This is having some impact in improving students ability to approach the exam questions. This is a student’s response from Friday’s lesson:


With a target grade of a six, he has some work to do – but there is progress: he is using evidence well, starting to explore language and making clear links to context.

Testing and self quizzing: “One of the most striking research findings is the power of active retrieval – testing – to strengthen memory, and that the more effortful the retrieval, the stronger the benefit” ‘Make it Stick’ pg 19

Quizzing/recall tasks have become a staple feature of all lessons. At least five minutes in every lesson ‘The Ghost of Memory’ will flash on the screen and students will be given five minutes to write down an element I have decided in advance. This might be the Ghost of Quotation, where they write down as many quotations as they can in the time, or the Ghost of Plot, where they write down key plot events in the novel so far. The students know that part of their homework each week is to complete some blank ghost of memory tasks: to retrieve and write down key points from the stave we have been working on. I have now also started to build in points in lessons in which students come up with five questions to ask themselves about the plot events/character development/key thematic changes in the novel. This is useful in ensuring that students have an understanding of how well they know the material – can they score five in their own quiz? This goes some way in making the revision engaging, but also it ensuring students have an accurate idea of the progress they are making:

ghost of memory

Reflection: “Reflection involves retrieval (What did I do? How did it work?) and generation (How could I make it better next time?) invoking imagery and mental rehearsal. ‘Make it Stick’, pg 132.

An important element of this is building in time for reflection. Reflection might be three minutes at the end of the lesson in which students identify what areas of the SCROOGE they have used in the lesson, or a chance at the end of the timed response to reflect on what they need to do to move forward their response.  The important thing is that they are returning to these moments of reflection to inform their targets for the next response.

Now to imply that I have come full Scrooge transition in my confidence that Year 11 can do well in this exam would be a significant overstatement: “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.” Not quite. There is a long way to go yet and lots of things I feel very far from secure on. Hopefully, however, with this structure and serious thought about how students can best retain information, there will be some doing Tiny Tim style celebrations come results day! Thank you for reading.



Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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