Most classrooms don’t force students to form long-term memories. They teach for short-term memories because of time and resource constraints. The homework that’s assigned is designed to get you from no understanding and no memory, to a decent understanding and a short-term memory. Mastery of the content and the formation of long-term memories aren’t built into the way classrooms are run, even in so-called “mastery-learning” classrooms.
But, and this is a big but, teachers and curriculums do appear to expect mastery and long-term memory. New content is built on old content, so you often can’t move forward if you’ve forgotten things from earlier in the year or things you learned in previous years. You can’t succeed in the second semester of chemistry if you haven’t sorted out first semester topics like unit conversions and balancing reactions. In Spanish 3, you’re expected to remember all the vocabulary, grammar rules, and verb conjugations from Spanish 1 and 2. Each successive math course is built on what came before. Final exams, AP tests, and the SAT all test your long-term memory and mastery of many months or even years of content. If they covered it ever, they’ll expect you to know it forever.
So, since school is simultaneously going to expect you to remember everything but not actively support long-term memory, it’s up to the students themselves to independently walk the mastery path by first climbing the muddy slope at the beginning by doing extra practice right away, and then choosing to engage in spaced repetition over the long-run, going back to review old material on a regular basis. If you have holes in your upside-down knowledge pyramids, you’ll have to patch them on your own time. If you’re taking the AP World History test, your teacher won’t ask you to review ancient history while you’re studying the French Revolution, so it’s on you to make that choice. You can choose to study and practice, or you can choose to forget.
To be sure, doing more than what they ask you is a difficult choice. After all, just playing the game of school keeps you plenty busy. But part of being a student is learning how to make those difficult choices over and over again, building up your brain muscles for willpower and focus.
And when they ask you to remember something from four months ago, and you’ve forgotten, it might feel unfair. It might feel like they’re out to get you or that they should have at least warned you. Well here’s your warning: If they covered it ever, it’s fair game forever.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.