Cognitive Skills Grow Rusty Over Time

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Cognitive Thinking


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
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Should schools send their students’ multiple-choice text messages?

In a paper, ‘How to maintain skill practice over school breaks’, the researchers aim to unpick what negative impact school breaks can have on student learning.

The ‘summer gap’ effect has been documented in many school subjects, particularly where a strong foundation of prior knowledge is required.

In comparison, a new study published by one of my colleagues at Cambridge University analyses the relationship between allocated curriculum time and value-added results. The findings report rather mediocre results.

In this new American study (March 2020), the researchers introduce a program that was designed for the very purpose of helping students stay up-to-date on pre-requisite [mathematics] skills and concepts.

The Keeping in School Shape (KiSS) program embodies retrieval practice by sending students multiple-choice questions daily via text messaging over school breaks. Following their responses, students receive immediate feedback and solutions.

This research shares participation patterns, confidence, and accuracy.

If you don’t use it, you lose it

In school students must not only remember what they learn throughout the year, but they must also retain what they have learned from one year to the next.

The researchers acknowledge “the traditional 9-month school calendar, in which schools open their doors in the fall and then close them during the summer months, was not designed with this concern in mind.”

Today, given what we know about wellbeing, mental health, memory and performance, how can we strike a better balance between school term and holiday periods?

Regular retrieval improves storage

“One way to bridge the gaps in formal instruction is to regularly ask students to recall previously learned material during their time off between courses. Neurologically, it is believed that retrieval practice strengthens memory traces, contributing to reprocessing (and perhaps elaboration), or building associations that facilitate transfer.

My research to date has explored why London cab drivers know so much, as well as why it is important to test students” knowledge, three times.

Exploring the work of David Eagleman in his book, The Brain, I’ve been teaching myself about memory in a bid to learn how I can support transforming teaching and learning cultures in the schools I support.

Eagleman has taught me a little more about the parts of our brain; how regular practice helps shape and strengthen the synapses (the connection) between two neurons in the brain.

There is a growing abundance of research to support the relationship between “storage strength (relative permanence of memory trace) and retrieval strength (momentary accessibility of memory trace)” (van de Sande, Lock, 2020).

Research findings

This new research strongly recommends that retrieval practice:

  1. Leads to flexible understanding,
  2. Improves higher-order thinking skills
  3. Promotes knowledge transfer E.g. what you have and have not mastered
  4. That testing represents an opportunity for learning, rather than functioning solely as assessment and,
  5. Enhances later performance on the material (Roediger III, Karpicke, 2006)


The KiSS 1.0 program was delivered over a 3-month summer break, with a 2.0 version delivered over the winter period to 184 students aged 18+. The program allowed for differential feedback based on responses to multiple-choice problems that tracked participation timing and responses. Short 1-2 minute videos were shared with a short takeaway message alongside the problem.

Each day students received a three-part activity involving the selection of a charitable cause, rating their confidence, and solving the problem. First, students were asked to choose one of five charitable causes that would receive benefits if they answered the daily problem correctly. Then the problem was shown with an Emoji-rating confidence scale, then students were asked to answer the question.

The researchers asked whether getting a question wrong might discourage students from further participation.

They looked at who quit participating directly following an incorrect response by the amount of participation and it appears that getting a question wrong had a progressively more discouraging impact on students as participation amounts decreased.


Simply, getting a problem wrong discourages students who participate occasionally, but has less of an effect on students who are more regular participants.

The research recommends “students who drop off their participation following an incorrect response could be automatically sent an encouraging message to induce them to resume and try again.”

A further consideration is whether students’ confidence in their ability to solve the daily problem was well-founded; students were generally very good judges of their abilities – 74 per cent of the total responses across all problems were accurate.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it” is the sad reality of what happens to skills and abilities that are not practised over time.


  • van de Sande, C., Lock, K., “The Keeping In School Shape Program: How to maintain skill practice over school breaks” 2020.
  • H. L. Roediger, III, & J. D. Karpicke, “The power of testing memory: basic research and implications for educational practice,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol 1, pp.181–210, 2006.

N.b. 41 per cent of the students did not respond to the test.

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