Mike O’Neill offers the first of a series of teaching activities for leading gifted and talented coordinators to use in the classroom with G&T students and share with colleagues

Maps from memory: the underlying theory

Maps from memory is based on research conducted into working memory – the part of our memory that stores and immediately processes information. Unlike long-term memory, which is a vast library of information, working memory is small and information can be retained and processed in it for only short periods of time.

If students are forced to focus on material by using a technique such as maps from memory, it is much more likely that they will successfully retain what they have seen. From a teaching perspective, it demonstrates how small is the amount of information that can be stored in the short term and, therefore, how important it is to structure lessons so that students work with small chunks of frequently-administered information.

Activity: Maps from memory

Subject: Science (biology)

Key Stage(s): 2, 3, 4 and 5

Time to allocate:
Approximately 10 minutes, as part of a starter or plenary activity.

Activity overview:
‘Maps from memory’ is a very useful thinking-skills activity that can be used in lessons to promote teamwork, strategic thinking, group discussion, questioning, competition, pace and metacognitive reflection. The activity is often used as a starter activity or as part of the plenary.

How does the activity work?
At a suitable point in the lesson, students should be arranged into groups of four or five. Each group should be given access to plain A3 or A4 paper and some pens or pencils. The teacher explains that she has a diagram which they must reproduce as accurately as possible.

However, only one student from each group is allowed to come up to the teacher’s desk and view the material at any one time. In addition, the student will only be allowed to view this material for a maximum of 30 seconds. Having viewed the material, students then return to their teams and try to recreate, as accurately as possible, a copy of what they have seen. When they have completed as much as they can, another member of the team goes to look at the diagram and adds to, or changes, the team’s drawing.

The activity continues for the chosen time span – by which time all the students should have seen the material and contributed to the accuracy of the drawing in some way.

While some students will be eager to put pen to paper, others will prefer to use their skills of description to advance and improve the drawing, possibly having to persuade team mates to make changes.

The ‘winning’ team is the one that produces the best reproduction of the diagram that has been viewed, with correct labelling.

Students in KS2 may have been learning about the digestive system and how various parts of the body enable us to successfully digest our food. The stimulus material used may be a simplified diagram of the human digestive system (or be a 3D model, or a more detailed diagram).

What does maps from memory bring to a lesson?

  • Pace
  • Questioning and discussion
  • Higher-order thinking
  • Strategic development and teamwork
  • Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning provision
  • Competition
  • An appreciation of the limits of working memory
  • Metacognitive techniques for self-reflection.

Could it help with homework?
Though maps from memory is not typically used as a homework activity, research has shown that students who use it when revising together in groups have found it very useful for helping them to retain key information.

Where else could I use maps from memory?

The following would be useful stimuli for this technique:

  • Circuit diagrams in physics lessons
  • Maps and other visual stimuli in the humanities
  • Carbon, nitrogen and rock cycles in chemistry
  • Characters and key objects from a text in English
  • Circle geometry in maths
  • Mind maps in all subjects
  • Any labelled diagrams in the target language in MFL
  • Tables or graphs
  • Apparatus or cooking equipment.

Mike O’Neill is director of educational strategies for the United Church Schools Trust