Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Teaching Strategies

"Think of your memory bank as a board, the information to be stored in your memory as nails to be driven into the board, and your attention as the hammer to be used to drive the nails into the board.  If your attention is inconsistent, nonexistent, or if you are overloaded or if you are multitasking, many of those nails will not be hammered in correctly, if at all.  The nails will fall out; likewise, the information will fall out and not be stored in your memory."  Ed Hallowell

~~~ Teaching Strategies to Improve Short-Term Memory ~~~

Do you know how long the average student’s attention span is? Any idea what is Press & Release /Primacy-Receny Effect? How about the varying levels of attention depending on the method of instruction? Know what Mnemoniccs and Chunking are?  Remember the advanatge of activating prior knowledge prior to beginning instruction?

Not sure of the answers? Then explore the information below.




1. Activate stored (encoded) knowledge prior starting a new topic – Anticipatory sets

Accessing and activating prior knowledge is important because it helps students make connections to the new information they will be learning.  By tapping into what students already know, teachers can assist students with the learning process

According to noted learning theorist Jean Piaget, accessing prior knowledge is how children make sense of the world.  They attempt to take new information and fit it into existing knowledge in order to create a schema, or mental map that fits into a specific category.  This makes the information more accessible because it is more memorable.  When they make connections, it allows them to find the information using this network.

Most of the problems you face are ones you’ve solved before, so you just do what you’ve done in the past.  For the vast majority decisions you make, you don’t stop to consider what you might do, reason about it, anticipate possible consequences, and so on.  You do take such steps when faced with a new problem, but not when faced with a problem you’ve already faced many times.

When faced with a unique problem or information, the brain analyzes the incoming information by comparing and contrasting (looking for similarities and differences) this knowledge with pre existing knowledge.  Activating prior knowledge allows the brain time to scan encoded information to construct meaning by using prior knowledge to interact with the unique, incoming information and better prepares the child for the upcoming topic.

The link below provides a short example why the use of schemas increases student’s understanding.

Other techniques to activate prior knowledge are concepts maps, KWLH technique, graphic organizer, teacher real life story or analogy, think-pair-share, a student’s link to a personal experience.


2. The brain is Associative and beware of False Memories

Read the following words.

thread, sewing, haystack, sharp, point, syringe, pin, pierce, injection, knitting


Now, without looking up, did you read the word syringe?

Did you read the word injection?

Did you read the word needle?

Most people would say the “needle” was on the list.  What you experienced was a real memory, but it is a false memory.

This is because memories are associative.  All of the words seemed to go together and “needle” seemed appropriate so you remembered it.

What is taken out of memory is not a Rolodex file card but a reconstruction of the past, but reconstruction is at the service of trying to make sense of the present.

What are the classroom implications of false memory?  The memory a child gives you back may be completely different than the expected one because they are associating to things you are not aware of.


3. Make the subject and information meaningful to students.

The following example will illustrate this concept.

Divide the class in half and ask group 1 to determine the number of letters that have diagonal lines in them and the number that do not.

Tell group 2 to think about the meaning of each word and rate the words on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how much they like the word.


Favorite words

The result.  The group that processes the meaning of the words always remembers 2 to 3 times as many words as the group that looked at the architecture of the individual letters.  The more meaning something has, the more memorable it becomes.  No kidding!

John Medina in his book Brain Rules uses the above example to explain that the more elaborately we encode information for learning, the stronger the memory.  When encoding is elaborate and deep, the memory that forms is much more robust than when encoding is partial and cursory.  We remember things much better the more elaborately we encode what we encounter, especially if we can personalize it.  The trick is to present information in a compelling fashion so that the audience does this on their own, spontaneously engaging in deep and elaborate encoding.

Odd!  Making something more elaborate means making it more complicated, which should be more taxing to a memory system.  But more complex means greater learning.

This is why the expression “drill and kill” is true.  If emotional meaning is not attached to incoming information, it is soon forgotten and the memory is not reinforced, becoming extinct.


4. Using two study sessions with time between the sessions can result in twice the learning as a single study session of the same total time length.

Employ this technique when presenting a new topic.  During the first 8 minutes of class, introduce the first half of a new topic.  Following the initial presentation, students complete a corresponding 5-minute activity.  Next, present the second half of the topic followed by a related review activity that encompasses the entire topic.

In Welcome to Your Brain, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang describe this phenomenon as spaced learning vs. cramming.  They explain that synapses (described below) can be maxed out or lose their ability to learn new information, which is called long-term depression or weakening of a synapse connection.  A way to avoid this is to utilize two study sessions vs. cramming hours for an exam.

5. Optimal use of time: Press & Release

The brain prefers a “pulse” learning pattern.

Press/Focused followed by Release/Diffused (Processing of Information)

The best learning occurs when interrupted by breaks of 2 - 5 minutes for diffusion or processing.

How long is best for focused activity?  The age of the learner plus two minutes.

Young learners: 5 – 10 minutes

Adolescents: 15 -20 minutes

Adults: 20 -25 minutes

The above was presented by Sarah Armstrong at the Learning & Brain Conference May 2010.


6. Utilize chunking which is breaking up long strings of information into smaller bits.

In Welcome to Your Brain, Aamodt and Wang explain that "brains are pattern processors.  Words presented in a logical, organized, hierarchical structure are remembered at a 40% higher rate than words placed randomly.  Why is this true?  Researchers have shown that when we create associations between concepts, we enhance memory.  Our brains are pattern matchers, or pattern driven processors, constantly assessing our environment for similarities and differences, and we tend to remember things if we think we have seen them before."

No connections = no meaning.  The brain is continuously trying to make sense out of the world, attempting to determine what is meaningful in what it experiences.  Every encounter with something new requires the brain to fit the new information into an existing memory category, or network of neurons.  It is imperative for the brain to connect new content to prior knowledge.  If it can’t, the information will have no meaning and not be converted to long-term memory.  (Armstrong, May 2010)

A chunk is any coherent group of items of information that we can remember as if were a single item.  A word is a chunk of letters, remembered as easily as a single letter, but carrying much more information.  (Armstrong, May 2010)

Chunking is an example of presenting information in a logical structure.  Herbert Simon showed that the ideal size for chunking letters and numbers, meaningful or not, was three.  This may be reflected in some countries to remember phone numbers as several chunks of three numbers with the final four-number group broken down into two groups of two.

For example, if presented with the string: FACMHDTIWNEB people are able to remember only a few items.  However, if the information is presented in the following way: FAC  MHD  TIW  NEB, people can remember many more letters.

The same method can be used with numbers. 177620011941 can be chunked into 1776  2001  1941 that represents twelve separate digits-well beyond most people’s capacity-but only three easily-remembered chunks.  In both examples, people are able to chunk the information into meaningful groups of letters or numbers.

The number example above demonstrates our limitations in remembering the number of items we can remember in order.  George A. Miller, when working at Bell Laboratories, showed that the capacity of short-term memory was 7±2 items, which was the title of one of the most highly cited papers in psychology, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” published in 1956 in Psychological Review.  With the opening sentence, “My problem, ladies and gentleman, is that I have been persecuted by an integer,” Miller suggests there is a fixed capacity for humans to receive information.  Miller’s hypothesis was seven (plus or minus two) was the magic number that characterized people’s memory performance on random list of letters, words, numbers, or almost any kind of meaningful familiar item.  Modern estimates of the capacity of short-term memory are lower, typically 4-5 items.  Beyond this capacity, new information can “bump” out other items from short-term memory, which is one form of forgetting.


7. Use real-world examples when introducing a topic or explaining material.

The more a learner focuses on the meaning of the presented information, the more elaborately the encoding is processed, - an obvious but often overlooked concept.

How does one communicate meaning in a way that improves learning?  Use relevant real-world examples embedded in the information, peppering main learning points with meaningful experiences.  The more personal an example, the more richly it becomes encoded and it is remembered.

The following experiment demonstrates this principle.  A group of students reads a 32-paragraph paper about a fictitious country in three different formats.  One contained no examples, one contained one example, and the third contained two or three consecutive examples of the main theme that followed.  The results were clear: the greater the number of examples in the paragraph, the more likely the information was to be remembered.

Why do examples work?  They take advantage of the brain’s natural predilection for pattern matching.  Information is more readily processed if it can be associated with information already present in the learner’s brain.  We compare two inputs, looking for similarities and differences as we encode the new information.  Providing examples is the cognitive equivalent of adding more door handles to the door.  Providing examples make the information more elaborate, more complex, and therefore better learned.

Another way to look at this concept concerns trying to drive a piece of information into your brain’s memory system - make sure you understand exactly what this information means.  When you are trying to drive information into someone else’s brain, make sure they know what it means.

But beware of the negative corollary.  If you don’t know what the information means, don’t try to memorize the information by rote and pray the meaning will somehow reveal itself.  And don’t expect your students will do this either.


8. Use compelling introductions when presenting material for the first time.

Introductions are everything.  The events that happen the first time you are exposed to information play a disproportionately greater role in your ability to accurately retrieve it at a later date.  If you are trying to get information across to someone, your ability to create a compelling introduction may be the most important single factor in the later success of your mission.  For example in public speaking, it has been reported that you win or lose the battle to hold your audience’s attention in the first 30 seconds of a given presentation.

For an illustration of this concept, refer to the door-handle example below in Insights & Tidbits.


9. Review of information over an extended time rather than an intense short period of time.

The massed-spaced effect refers to the fact that humans and animals more easily remember or learn information when it is studied a few times over an extended period of time (“spaced presentation”), rather than studied repeatedly in a short period time (“massed presentation”).  For 911 and the birth of a child, you only need one trail to remember.  But that is not how the world works where you need events and information repeated to be remembered.  The phenomenon was first identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 1885 and has been confirmed copious times since it’s discovery.

Practically, this effect suggests that "cramming" (intense, last-minute studying) the night before an exam is not likely to be as effective as studying at intervals over a much longer span of time.  For the classroom, the massed-spaced effect implies that review for tests should be gradual and extended over several days rather than crammed the day before a test.


10. Mnemonics:  The brain is Velcro sticky; it is an association machine, and a reason why mnemonics work. This is why we get jingles stuck in our heads and the reason why we say the ABCs or “Twinkle, twinkle little star.”

Can’t get a certain song out of your head? Certain phrases or songs that stay on your mind are examples of sequences. Sequences are important because they are used to recall remembering. We use sequencing to make coffee, to remember the names of exits, etc. Sequencing improves the likelihood you will remember an action or word, which then will lead to more reinforcement. It is necessary for normal strengthening and cementing of memories.

Why are certain sequences hard to get out of your head? Because they have an emotional impact or component to them. Emotion highlights the effect of the experience and makes it more likely to be consolidated in memory. How to break the sequencing or reinforcement? Thinking of another sequence, song, or phrase will crowd out the first one.


11. The door-handle example

In the past, stores had door handles at different heights. The logic was simple: the more handles on the door, the more access points that were available for entrance to a building, regardless of the strength, age, or height of the customer. Today, most commercial establishments have doors with elongated handles that accomplish the same purpose.

John Medina connects this analogy to encoding by explaining that the “quality of encoding means the number of door handles on the door.” He continues, “the quality of encoding really means the number of door handles one can put on the entrance to a piece of information. The more handles one creates at the moment of learning, the more likely it can be accessed at a later date. The handles we can add revolve around content, timing, and environment.”




“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.