Monday, March 3, 2008

Working Memory: The Conscious Processing of Information

(Notes from a chapter of the same name in Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice by Patricia Wolfe)

Getting students to remember what we teach for more than 15-20 seconds is not easy, but it’s also not impossible if we understand how the brain works and make use of strategies that get information to stick.

The Cocktail Party Effect
  • Even when lots of people are talking all around you, it is possible to pay attention to one person who is talking directly to you. Using selective auditory attention, your brain allows you to pay attention to the information that is most relevant.
  • However, it is nearly impossible to consciously process two trains of thought at the same time, especially if they involve the same sensory modality.

Implications for your teaching: It is important to minimize classroom distractions as much as possible because you don’t really want it to resemble a cocktail party, but when students are working in groups it may very well sound that way. So, if a lot is going on in your room at a given time, think of ways to make distractions work to your favor by providing additional ways for students to learn. For example, make the things you post on your walls informative so your visual learners can take in something new and important when they’re gazing around the room. If you or your students are giving an oral presentation, try to include an additional learning modality in your talk. Can you include visual charts or pictures? Can you incorporate movement into the learning process?

The Magical Number Seven (Plus or Minus Two):
Our span of immediate memory tends to be around 7. The number of digits children can recall accurately increases by one every two years until a mental age of 15 at which point the magical number of 7 is reached.

Implications for your teaching: When I learned vocabulary words in school I usually had lists of 20 words to memorize in a week. Years later I probably only remember a fraction of the words I was taught, partly because I was given too many to learn at one time. When I taught vocabulary to my students I only gave them 8 words to learn in a week but at the end of the year they were able to define and use almost every word they learned during the week. The old phrase “less is more” applies here!

Rote Rehearsal
Rote rehearsal is repeating the information over and over, but this strategy for memorizing typically works better with skills or habits than with content.

Implications for your teaching: Rote rehearsal happens to be the main strategy we use when trying to get students to learn a lot of material – so it’s interesting to note that it doesn’t actually work that well when it comes to content. So, when teaching content, we should rely more on these other strategies than on repetition of the facts.

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