OCR Latin GCSE language – exam technique

GCSE candidates for 2023 are facing their first exam on Tueday May 16th. I have written recently on specific aspects of the paper, in particular the grammar questions and the derivatives question, but this is a generalised post about how to approach the examinantion as a whole.

The Latin language paper is one of the few examinations in which most students will not be under time pressure. Obviously there are always exceptions, and I have had some students who are exceptionally cautious or methodical in their approach find themselves run out of time – but this is very rare. Most students finish the paper early and many finish it within around half the time that is allocated to them. This can lull students into a false sense of security, and there have been few experiences more frustrating in my time than watching students close their paper and choose to spend their remaining time sparing into space. Examiners are not stupid, and the time allocated to candidates is done so for a reason. There is a great deal of time allocated to the language paper because a high degree of accuracy is demanded in order for students to perform exceptionally well.

So what should candidates be doing with all of the spare time that they will – as a general rule – have on their hands? Here are my key bits of advice.

  1. First priority is to go back to the start of the examination and check the bits of the paper that you found easy and did quickly, which is most likely to be the simple comprehension questions in Section A. This is where you are most likely to spot minor errors. Use the time to check your work and look for minor slips such as translating a singular as a plural or vice versa – these kids of errors will lose you marks that you are perfectly capable of scoring.
  2. Return to the derivatives question. This question asks you to define the derivative as well as to give one. Check whether you have chosen the best possible example of a derivative, by which I mean whether have selected one that you can define. For example, in the specimen paper the examiner asks for a derivative from the word credo (I trust or believe) and almost all students immediately plump for credit, which is actually really tough to define in relation to the meaning of the original Latin word; much better to select credible, which defines as believable, or incredible, which you can define as unbelievable. Using the spare time that you have to think of a better derivative could win you an extra 2-4%.
  3. Check your grammar questions. Some of them have more than one possible answer, so check that you have chosen the most solid answer that you are definitely sure of. Check and double check that you have answered all parts of each question as accurately as you can.
  4. Check your answers to the comprehension in Section B and return to the parts of the translation in Section B that you got stuck on and give it a little more thought. Staring at a sentence you find difficult and don’t understand may be a waste of time and may cause you stress, so don’t stare at it for longer than a couple of minutes. If you’re really stuck that’s okay – the exam is designed to really test you and you can still score a top grade without understanding every line.
  5. Finally, if you have checked and double checked everything in the examination and are 100% sure that you have done your most accurate best, now is the time to consider answering the alternative optional question. Most students choose (or have been trained) to do the grammar questions and miss out the English into Latin. If you have spare time following all your checks there is no reason why you cannot answer the English to Latin questions as well: the examiner will mark both options and you will be awarded with whichever gains the highest mark. Remember, however, that this is the very last thing that you should do when you literally have nothing else to check, as it is always a potential waste of your time – you can’t be credited with marks for both options!

Always remember that a few marks here or there can make the ultimate difference between one grade and another. It’s a myth that examiners pool together the papers and re-examine those that are very close to the boundary – teachers do this during the mocks and did this during the pandemic. Examiners do not. It is a purely mathematical game of number-crunching and if you come out just one mark below the grade boundary then that’s how it is. So trawl through you answers and celebrate any mistakes that you find – it could just make the difference in the end.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Off you go and learn it

Time and again I am struck by how little guidance some students are given about how to go about the process of learning. I’m not talking about school assemblies on “study skills”, which I guarantee you most teenagers will switch off from; the guidance needs to come directly from each individual classroom teacher, the subject expert, and it needs to be explicitly taught, modelled and demonstrated on a regular basis. Schools need to agree what methods they are going to recommend and this needs to be reflected right across the school in all subjects, tailored specifically to what works best in each academic discipline.

Too often, it seems to me, students are still being told: here is your Latin set text, now off you go and learn the first section. I was guilty of this in my first few years of teaching – rote-learning comes relatively easy to me and I didn’t really comprehend that students need to be shown how to go about engaging with the process. Furthermore, I was working in a very high-achieving grammar school, where we were not really encouraged to support students proactively with their learning; it was assumed that all the students in the school could cope well in academia without such support.

When it comes to the literature element of the Latin GCSE, whether or not a student knows the translation of the set text off by heart and whether they can relate that knowledge to the the Latin version in front of them is without doubt the single most important differentiator between a student’s success and failure in the exam. Despite this inescapable fact, few Latin teachers appear willing to dedicate classroom time to the learning process, so wedded are they to the conviction that students can manage the learning “in their own time”. Many of my tutees have been told time and again that they “don’t know the text” well enough, that they “need to learn” it, that they need to “spend more time” on it, that generally they need to do something to gain the knowledge required. Yet when I ask them, “what methods have you practised in class?” they stare at me blankly. I have come to realise that most students are not being taught how to learn things off by heart, beyond the most rudimentary of introductions.

I am not naive. Having taught in secondary schools for 21 years, 13 of those years in a comprehensive setting, I am more than well aware of students’ uncanny ability to claim that they have “never been taught” something that they in fact have been told on more than one occasion. However, the extreme cluelessness of so many of my clients when it comes to what to do and their apparent awe when they are taught some very basic methods such as colour-coding and the first-letter technique do leave me increasingly convinced that many classroom teachers are not dedicating enough (or in some extreme cases any) classroom time to learning methodologies. I’ll bet most of them are doing what I used to do in my first few years of teaching – giving students a few bullet points of advice on how to go about learning the texts, then assuming that those students will remember this going forward. But why do we believe that? We would not (I hope) present them with the endings of the 1st declension in one lesson then assume that they will remember those endings for the rest of time – so why should that be the case when it comes to study skills?

One possible reason is teachers’ anxiety about time. One of the greatest strains that GCSE Latin teachers are under is time pressure. Very schools offer enough space on the timetable for our subject and I am fully aware that making it through both set texts within the time available is a mammoth task. I rarely finished the second set text prior to the end of March – on the few occasions that I managed to do so it was real cause for celebration. Yet despite this, as my career progressed I allocated an ever-increasing amount of classroom time to teaching students how to go about the learning process and also to giving them short bursts of learning time to actually get on with it in silence. Any spare few minutes that I found myself in possession of at the end of a new section or a new concept, I would allow them to bow their heads and spend 10 minutes using the first-letter technique to get a few sentences of the text under their belts. I wonder whether classroom teachers are afraid of allowing students this time, as if it somehow undermines the important of our teaching role. I used to remind students that I was painfully aware how much pressure I was putting them under, asking them to rote-learn a new chunk of text almost every single week. So part of the deal I made with them was that – whenever I could – I would let them have a few minutes of classroom time to kick-start the process.

The benefits of allocating this time are twofold. Firstly, it literally does get the children started on the process and is an opportunity to remind them once again of the methods that have been recommended: I used to put them up on a summary slide, even when they could all recite the methods without hesitation. Secondly, while students are studying, a teacher can circulate the room and check whether they are actually using the methods – there will always be a few hardcore reluctants who claim that the recommended methods “don’t work for them”. This is when a teacher needs to be strong. The evidence for what works and what doesn’t work in terms of how we learn is overwhelming, and unless that child can perform perfectly in every test you give them then they need to get on board with the methods!

As for what the methods should be, I recommend a variety but one is definitely stand-out brilliant and so far has worked for every student I have ever met. So if you haven’t read my previous post on how to use the first-letter technique then do so straight away – you will never look back!

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

errare humanum est

How children respond to making a mistake is very telling. Working closely in a one-to-one situation with lots of different young people has really started to make me think about the psychology of erring and how an individual’s response to it can be a powerful indicator of their resilience and their potential for success – both academically and in terms of their emotional welfare.

I should stress at the outset that none of my personal observations are truly evidence-based; I work with lots of youngsters, but my reflections are no more than a series of anecdotes. However, my thoughts have sent me off on a bit of a whistlestop tour of what the research does say. For example, a child’s age radically affects their ability to cope with making mistakes and receiving feedback on them; younger children are much less able to cope with negative feedback and require more overt positivity and reassurance. However, recent research supports the notion that making mistakes is crucial to the learning process, and that setting the bar high is more productive in terms of learning outcomes. Yet children will not benefit from this if their response to making mistakes is riddled with anxiety or other negative emotions, and it is this insecapable fact which led to the popularity of the concept of growth mindset in schools; unfortunately, the longterm results show either no benefits or only very small incremental benefits for all the money and time that has been hurled into the concept.

Like many proven concepts in psychology, the truth about growth mindset is not greatly surprising: children with what could be described as a growth mindset – in other words, with the resilience that enables them not only to cope with making mistakes but to learn from them – these children do better in school overall. Well, duh. I’m not sure this is news to anybody. However, what happened in response to this proven research, inevitably, was a rush to develop and advocate for strategies through which schools could encourage a growth mindset in all children. Now, let’s be realitic. Of course, schools can model and encourage a growth mindset in students, but they’re never going to radically adjust the psychology of every individual sat in front of them; pretending that this is possible is part of the pressure that is driving teachers out of their jobs. Let us be clear: the model that children see at home is, always has been and always will be more powerful than what is modelled for them in school.

The observations I have been making about how children react to mistakes are something I am still pondering about. I have yet to meet a child with a truly mature response to the process and I don’t expect to – that maturity comes (if you’re lucky) during adulthood. But I think I can spot the ones that are already on their way there and the ones that I am concerned may struggle along the way.

The clients that worry me the most are the ones that immediately apologise for every error they make. If a child’s response to an academic mistake or misjudgement or mis-recollection is that it is something they need to apologise for, I can only imagine the psychological strain that this places upon them on a daily basis. The feedback loop is essential to study and the process of learning, and I have yet to find a way that reassures such children that this is the case, to the extent that they stop apologising. No matter how much reassurance they are given, no matter how well they are doing, such children will – in my experience to date – continue to apologise for errors. It concerns me greatly for their wellbeing, never mind the limitations that it may place on their longterm ability to learn.

At the other end of the scale are the children who won’t accept they have made a mistake. This too, I suspect, may stem from anxiety. The child will go to endless lengths to tell you why what they said is not wrong, or is the same thing as what you said, or is what they meant in the first place. For some children, granted, this can just be a bit of fun – I have one very high-achieving client who likes to be flippant and retort “same thing” when I tweak his translation; he knows and I know that he’s having a joke with me and will in fact file the correct answer for future reference. But I have met a handful of children who will tie themselves up in knots before they will admit that something is wrong, so desperate are they to avoid the suggestion. One problem with this is that so much learning time is wasted; a more serious concern is that their reaction to the situation belies a level of anxiety about making mistakes that will hold them back in the longterm.

A reaction I have noticed among some high-achievers is what I call self-policing. These students will wail “why on earth did I say that?!” when they make a small slip – they are hyper-aware when their mistake is a minor slip of the tongue, perhaps due to rushing, and they flagillate themselves for it mercilessly. Interestingly, such children are very concerned by minor errors, but deal much better with the process of puzzling out more challenging tasks, in which they expect to make mistakes and learn from them. I find this fascinating. Of course, we all have the urge to tick ourselves off when we do something that we perceive to be foolish, but I have found myself pondering recently whether something more complex is going on. Many of these sorts of children are in very high-achieving schools and/or come from families with high expectations. Are they used to being pounced on when they say something foolish? I remember a colleague who had worked in one of the most academically high-octane boys’ schools in the country telling me that the boys had a particular word that they would all shout in a chorus when another boy “said something stupid”. I absolutely cringed. What an awful learning environment for children, and what a dreadful place that must have been to teach. To what extent, I wonder, do such places contribute to an inability to face up to one’s own mistakes, when blustering and denial seems an infinitely safer option?

But here is the good news. A genuinely surprising number of students deal with mistakes superbly and every time I observe this I want to grab their parents and hug them. Do they realise, I wonder, what a great job they must have done in those formative years? Do they know just what a difference it will make to their child’s longterm wellbeing and their ability to learn? When a child is able to say “aha! Yes, I see that.” Or “ooh, so why is that wrong?” Or even “hang on, didn’t you say x earlier?” which will then help us to uncover a misconception or confusion or exception or false friend or other glitch in the matrix of learning. Such children feel the advantages of tutoring the most, for they are able to access its benefits face-on and without fear.

As a passionate tutor, I try to guide all my students towards this approach by helping them to develop this mindset and attitude towards their studies. But for some it comes naturally, for others I will always be fighting the tide of their previous experiences, their anxieties, their beliefs about themselves and their ability to learn, the way that they have been spoken to or had situations modelled for them by a myriad of family members, friends and teachers throughout all the challenges that they have faced so far. But the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that a child’s attitude towards mistakes is central to their potential for progress (and indeed central to their happiness and wellbeing), so it is something I shall continue to give a great deal of thoughtful energy to.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Cambridge Latin Course 5th edition

Book 2: radical changes

Last week I reviewed the 5th edition of the Cambridge Latin Course Book 1. While the changes were notable, they were perhaps only apparent to someone who knows the course inside out. By contrast, the moment one opens the second book and compares it to its 4th edition predecessor, it is apparent that the changes here are far more radical. From the very first set of cartoons, the difference it striking.

Okay. Full disclosure from the outset: I don’t like Book 2. As a result, I’m afraid that this review is not going to be gushing. It is difficult enough to hold the attention of Year 9 (especially once they’ve chosen their options, which happens remarkably early in the academic year); with CLC Book 2, it was nigh on impossible and I have never felt so liberated as when I ditched it altogether. Yet the authors of the 5th edition have clearly made significant improvements to make the transition from the first to the second book is more palatable. To date, students have struggled to move on from the loss of Caecilius and other favourite characters, so the authors of the new edition have done the right thing in attempting to give Quintus more character in Book 1 and providing him with a new companion to accompany him on his travels. I retain my reservations about Book 2, even in its new format but, with such radical changes employed, it is undeniable that the authors have given it their best shot to adapt it.

The first stage of the book (Stage 13 in the series) has been radically altered. The lazy slave motifs of yesteryear are gone, and the opening cartoons demonstrate this from the outset. The monumentally dull opening story Tres Servi has been removed and replaced with a much better story entitled Romanus Vulneratus, which introduces us to Salvius in the distance, observed by a local farmer and his family. This is a much cleverer way to spark interest in the story Coniuratio which follows, and which we now hear as an explanation as to how the wealthy Roman Salvius came by his wound. I think the very idea of seeing these Roman characters through local eyes is excellent and a terrific approach taken by the authors throughout the new edition.

Rufilla is given a more dominant role, notable in the way the cartoons are presented and how the story of Bregans is shaped around her rather than Varica. The story is now divided into two parts, but still introduces the dog sent as a gift by King Togidubnus (renamed in line with updated research). A new character of Vitellianus is introduced and there is much better story-telling, with Rufilla noticing that her husband is wounded, and much less “Romanising”, with Bregans no longer being the stupid, lazy slave. The twins, Loquax and Anti-Loquax, are notable by their absence in this Stage. Salvius Fundum Inspicit has been renamed Fundus Britannicus, and once again this story has been adapted to reflect the viewpoint of local farmers living under the Roman occupation.

The order in which the grammar is introduced throughout Book 2 remains the same. For example, Stage 13 still introduces the verbs volo, nolo and possum used with the infinitive, and this grammatical point is rather better represented throughout the stories than it was before. I still ache for the lack of exercises provided; regretfully (and – as I undetstand it – deliberately) the CLC still relies heavily on the classroom teacher supplementing students’ studies. The authors have moved the practising the language exercises to the back of the book and added in extra comprehensions in every stage; given that the exercises require extensive vocabulary support, I do wonder whether the authors have considered just how much work the CLC demands of the clasroom teachers who work with it. When I think of the thousands of Latin teachers all over the country typing out hundreds of exercises on the most basic of grammatical principles, it makes me want to weep at the inefficiency. Changes have been made to the vocabulary checklists, largely (although not entirely) to better represent the list of words required at GCSE. I retain serious concerns about the vocabulary used outside of the checklists, which I shall come back to later.

The authors have decided to ditch the motif of Rufilla as the nagging, 1970s-style housewife, which is a great relief. She has an equally if not more dominant role in Stage 14 as before, but the row between her and Salvius, in which she was portrayed as fickle and spoilt, has been replaced with Familia Occupata, in which her focus is preparing the guest bedroom – a much better way to build anticipation about who that guest might be. The household slaves are also much better represented throughout Stage 14 in the build up to Quintus Advenit, now renamed Familiaris Advenit to allow students to discover the guest’s identity for themselves as they translate. The story of the silver tripods remains, followed by a new story for comprehension, which once again replaces the exercises now moved to the back of the book. This certainly cements the “reading course” approach – to those of us unconvinced by that philosophy, I fear it is another nail in the coffin for the CLC. Many teachers, however, will be very pleased to see some beginners’ level literary criticism brought in – I am aware that some schools take this approach with the CLC already and it seems the team has taken it on board.

It is notable that the background sections, which continue to exploit the idea of the characters appearing as talking heads, are now spread out more widely throughout some of the stages, meaning that teachers are perhaps more likely to weave the background material into their lessons as originally intended by the philosophy of the CLC. Women are better represented (i.e. they are represented full stop) and there is a pleasing exploration as to why we know so little about them and indeed about anyone who was not rich, male and powerful. I will not explore and discuss the changes to the background in depth because – like many state-school teachers, I had no time for them anyway and therefore lack the expertise. Suffice to say it is clear that the changes are radical, thorough and for the better, so schools with the time to explore them in depth will have much better quality material to work with.

The changes to the stories in Stage 15 appear less radical and therefore what’s most noticeable is once again the practising the language being a comprehension rather than exercises, which have again been moved to the back of the book. There is a welcome change to the cartoons at the start of Stage 16, which previously had the most extraordinary representation of enslaved people with dwarfism, randomly juggling for the entertainment of some dinner guests. While it is absolutely undeniable that the Romans did this kind of thing, to make this image the only representation of disability within the pages of the CLC and drop it in without comment was frankly appalling and something that I am very glad to see the back of. These unfortunate (and nameless) characters have been replaced with the previously absent twins, named in previous editions as Loquax and Anti-Loquax, who make an appearance here although are not named. In the same set of cartoons the authors have also removed the bizarre and frankly distracting moment when a dancing girl appears out of an enormous egg and have replaced her with some birds. Below is the image as it appears in the 4th edition followed by its replacement in the 5th.

I was pleased to see Quintus De Se still in place, as this is a pivotal and grammatically useful story, where Quintus articulates his trauma and which I used to use in an adapted form to test students on verb endings. The story has some pleasing tweaks, incorporating the fate of Lucia, Quintus’s sister, and explaining how Clemens found the two siblings after some time and gave Quintus the ring handed to him by Caecilius at the end of Stage 12 (which to my recollection was never mentioned again in previous editions).

But Stages 15 and 16 in general are the point where the CLC starts to go a bit wild, in my opinion. To my dismay, the authors have chosen to keep the storyline about Belimicus, the tedious boat race and the bear – in my experience, children honestly do not find these stories even half as exciting as the authors seem to think they are, but maybe other teachers have found differently. And yes, of course, I used to throw myself into it, get the children to act out the stories, draw diagrams of the race, label what happened at each point, you name it, I did it. We were all doing it back in 2010. Some teachers are still doing it. What an epic waste of class time! Let’s focus on the language: in my experience, by this point in the course, the amount of unusual vocabulary weighs so heavily upon students that they find themselves endlessly frustrated by the translation process and therefore lose heart with it. My concerns in this regard are perpetuated in this new edition, where the authors have elected to continue to use relatively unusual vocabulary to introduce and demonstrate core grammar. As just one example, the sentence which demonstrates the pluperfect in Stage 16 is constructed almost entirely out of words which do not appear on either of the GCSE specifications, nor in Dickinson’s One Thousand: artifices, qui picturas pinxerant, peritissimi erant. Other than the verb to be and the relative pronoun, these words are frankly irrelevant and I think it’s madness, given the depth of the overhaul that this course has undergone, that the authors haven’t taken the opportunity to resolve this issue. I suspect it is because they genuinely don’t see the excessive amount of unusual vocabulary as an issue to the extent that I have found it to be in the classroom.

Stages 17-20 remain, as in prior editions, a flashback to Quintus’s time in Alexandria, with the notable change that his sister Lucia, introduced in the new 5th edition of Book 1, is also a survivor and therefore joins Quintus on his travels. An extra story in Stage 17 entitled Tres Aves focuses on her and makes further pleasing mention of the siblings’ losses in Pompeii – in previous editions, there wasn’t enough opportunity taken to make links for the characters with their past, so this is really good to see – the course and its narrative certainly feels more coherent now. Stage 18 retains its focus on Clemens, his Alexandrian shop and the protection racketeering and Stage 19 still introduces the characters of Aristo, Galatea and Helena – mention is now made in the cartoons that they are friends of Barbillus, which goes some considerable way towards maintaining the thread of the storyline better than in previous editions. Lucia is also woven into the stories of Stage 19, with this being the focus in a total re-write of Dies Festus. The story of the hen-pecked Aristo has – mercifully – been removed and we are then into endgame, with the story Venatio depicting the scenario which will finish off Barbillus, who has thus been much better woven into the extended narrative throughout Book 1 and Book 2. Barbillus’s demise seems much more poignant, not just because he has been better painted as a character and friend of the family, but because his will is represented nicely in the book and the relationship between him and the siblings Quintus and Lucia is much more explicitly drawn.

While the storyline hangs together really well and the narrative is undeniably entertaining, I maintain that the vocabulary of Book 2 is overwhelming for students and that this burden will continue to cause them to lose interest, both in the narrative and in the language itself. Were I still a classroom teacher I do not believe that I would have re-embraced the use of Book 2, solely due to this fact. While Book 1 requires heavy supplementation, this is just about manageable and definitely worth doing. But when I found myself glossing virtually every single word in a lengthy story – as I did for Book 2 – and when those words are, on the whole, not useful for GCSE, I had to ask myself what purpose the book was serving. My professional judgement that Book 2 was not serving my needs as a time-pressed classroom teacher sadly remains the same having examined the 5th edition: the authors simply haven’t addressed the core reasons behind why I ditched it in the first place. Others will feel very differently of course, and I suspect that ardent fans of the course will be delighted with the changes.

I was always going to be a tough audience, with my fundamental dislike for Book 2 and my sincere belief that it is pretty much irreconcilable with the needs of the classroom teacher, particularly in a comprehensive setting. I remain convinced that the CLC and its usefulness starts to crumble beyond repair at this point. The passages are packed with too much difficult, irrelevant and overwhelming vocabulary and – perhaps most crucially of all – far too much relies on the classroom teacher to produce countless supplementary worksheets; the requirement to do this is so onerous that one is left wondering why one would invest in these expensive text books at all, when they fail so fundamentally to provide the core content of a Latin course.

The value of forgetting

Many people undestimate the importance of forgetting time. I’m not talking about forgetting painful experiences here (although the ability to wipe those from one’s memory might also be considered rather useful); I’m talking about giving your brain time to “forget” what it has learned, purely so that you can force it to remember again. Think that sounds weird? Well, let me persuade you.

Memory, as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham so famously defined it, is the residue of thought. Students will struggle to remember things which they have not thought deeply about and the best teachers use a combination of methods to get students to think actively about what they need to remember. There has been much welcome discussion in recent years about retrieval practice in the classroom, and alongside that the importance of spaced learning. Believe you me, this was not the focus during my teacher-training 21 years ago, indeed there was little to no interest shown by the lecturers in how memory works, little focus on the inescapable fact that a child’s success or failure in the education system is defined by their ability to use their memory effectively – both their working memory and their longterm memory.

In the simplest possible terms, a person’s working memory is what they use to process information and acts like a kind of holding pad. Memory expert Tracy Alloway describes the working memory as like a post-it note: capable of holding only a tiny amount of information temporarily, and not suitable as a system for longterm storage. For effective learning to take place in the classroom, it is crucial that a student’s working memory is not overloaded and a large part of that responsibility rests with the classroom teacher. However, students themselves (and those supporting them) can help too. The more a student can do to transfer knowledge into their longterm memory (which, unlike the working memory, is limitless) the better their capacity to learn will be. In my subject, this means that the student should endeavour to learn as much vocabulary as they can, as well as the important noun and verb endings; this will mean that they are not over-burdened in the classroom, enabling them to access more learning.

So there’s the rub. How exactly does one transfer knowledge reliably into one’s longterm memory? Well, the more I work one-to-one with students and advise their parents and guardians, the more I have come to understand that most of them really underestimate the importance of forgetting time.

Some students have been taught about spaced learning in school, as part of a drive towards empowering them with a knowledge of metacognition (which is thinking about thinking – a knowledge of how we learn – exactly what we’re talking about now). This is fantastic. In schools that are switched on to this, students are taught to repeat their self-testing processes regularly, leaving a gradually-increasing length of time between each revisit. Some schools teach a fixed process, helping students by advising them on exactly how long those varied gaps should be, but the truth is that it doesn’t necessarily matter. In principle, students should be regularly testing themselves on things they learnt that day, that week, that fortnight, that month, that year; the best and most effective kind of retrieval draws on a range of learning distances.

Students can actually exploit their brain’s capacity for forgetting and retrieval during very short spaces of time, and I make this happen within my 30-minute tutoring sessions. As one simple example, I might help a student commit the endings of the 1st declension to memory in the first few minutes of a session. I might then test them on a series of nouns which follow the first declension. I will then return to the endings of the 1st declension and test them on those again at the end of the session. That’s a typical 30-minute lesson arc and allows for “forgetting time”. However, even within that arc, I will further exploit the brain’s ability to switch from one focus to another and, as a result, to temporarily forget; during the process of testing a student on the 1st declension endings, once they reach a certain level of competence, I might suddenly ask them a couple of random questions to distract them from the table: do they know how many declenions there are? What gender are most nouns in the 1st declension? Can they think of any words that they know which follow the pattern of the 1st declension? Once their brain has been distracted for a minute or or so by this Q&A, I will then ask them to recall the endings of the 1st declension once again. The constant exploitation of forgetting time increases the impact of learning because it is forcing the brain to retrieve something which has briefly exited the working memory (i.e. the student has not spent the last minute actively thinking about it and holding it in their head).

Perhaps the most important thing that students need to know is that forgetting is crucial. Forgetting is therefore not the enemy; forgetting is part of the learning process. Once students gain confidence with this, what they begin to realise is that their brains take less and less time to recall what they have seemingly forgotten with each reboot. The process of recall in and of itself is what cements learning and is crucially important. I have written before about the dangers of the forgetting curve, as posited by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, when it comes to memorisation; but what the forgetting curve actually shows is that forgetting is not just inevitable, it is an integral part of the memorisation process. We cannot learn a large amount of information without allowing ourselves time to “forget” it prior to forcing ourselves to recall it again.

It is therefore important to reassure students that retrieval can and indeed should feel a little uncomfortable – you are forcing yourself to try and remember, and in these days of Google that is not something we do very much. Many a happy evening was spent back in the day when a friend might say “who wrote that song?” and one would spend several minutes (or several hours!) trying to remember collectively. Now we can just look up the answer, we’re perhaps less trusting of the fact that if we wait long enough, the answer will pop into our heads. As Daniel T. Willingham puts it, “people usually believe that forgetting happens over time; if you don’t use a memory, you lose it. This may be hard to believe, but sometimes the memory isn’t gone—it’s just hard to get to.” This is the most remarkable thing demonstrated in the whole process – you might think you’ve forgotten something, but the memory is actually there, lurking deep inside your brain. Retrieval teaches you how to access it.

So let’s hear it for forgetting. Forgetting is important. Forgetting should be exploited as part of the learning process. And let’s face it, forgetting is unavoidable. All we can do is work with it.

“Just one more thing, Sir …” Peter Faulk as the unforgettable Columbo,
who made the art of seeming to forget his trademark