Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

December 17 Make it Meaningful

Last month’s Ed Tip explored two factors that affect the ability of working memory to retain information, namely that time data is accessible in working memory before it becomes extinct and its capacity.

The first phenomena, the 18-Second Holding Pattern, advances that without rehearsal and constant attention, information remains in the working memory for only about 15-20 seconds (McGee & Wilson, 1984) before it becomes extinct and is forgotten. The second phenomena, often referred to as “Miller Law,” describes the capacity of working memory as The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. “Miller Law,” revealed by George Miller, one of the founders of cognitive psychology and a leader in the study of short-term memory, hypothesizes that given a random list of letters, words, numbers, or almost any kind of meaningful familiar item, seven (plus or minus two or 7±2) items was the magic number that characterized people’s memory.

This month’s article will examine how creating meaningful and relevant experiences can be used to increase the longevity of new material in working memory by addressing its restrictions of space and time.

Memory involves three processes: encoding, recording, and retrieval. The brain receives and encodes (takes in) new information; the brain then records (stores) the information; and finally, the brain retrieves information when you need it.

In his book Visible Learning, John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Visible Learning Labs, University of Auckland, New Zealand, assesses the astonishing obstacles that must be conquered to pay attention to new information and begin the encoding process.

“Consider the following strange calculations. Through counting neural connections, it has been estimated that 11,000,000 signals, or units of information, could be sent to the brain from sensory receptors at any one moment in time. Such is the complexity of the visual system, that the eyes alone account for about 10 of the 11 million possible units of information. To function adaptively, we can actively filter out massive amounts of potential input information, to the point where our conscious mind, or our focal attention, might zoom in (just like a camera lens) to allow about 40 units of information per second. So, what happens to the other 10,999,960 informational units potentially available to the mind within such an acutely focused one-second period?

The inevitable answer is that we do not pay attention to the vast bulk of information that could be available. We are highly selective in what we focus upon. We have to be! The vast bulk of information, as apprehended by our senses, simply has no effect on our conscious mind because of this remarkable capacity for selective attention. With our minds, we can focus on minute details and shut out other inputs.”

Given the incredible fact that out of 11 million bits of information entering the brain in one minute, only 40 bits of information become conscious, how are educators able to conquer this seemingly insurmountable undertaking? When presenting new information that must be retained, what tools can teachers use to ensure that students will remember data the next day or next week? What pedagogy practices exist for teachers to overcome this challenging and potentially overwhelming learning impediment?

According to John Almarode, Department Head and Assistant Professor at James Madison University, the solution is for teachers to facilitate the production of acetylcholine in students’ brains. Acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter found in the brain and part of the autonomic system, has been found in many studies to be absolutely essential in the formation of memories and one of the most important brain chemicals involved in cortical imprinting (learning), according to Almarode.

In a 2016 online article in Science and Technology, the authors report on a study in Neuron (May 2016) when mice where administered increasing and decreasing amounts of acetylcholine. The researchers discovered that when they increased acetylcholine release in the amygdala during the formation of a traumatic memory, it greatly strengthened memory—making the memory last more than twice as long as normal. Then, when they decreased acetylcholine signaling in the amygdala during a traumatic experience, one that normally produces a fear response, they could actually wipe the memory out.”

Now the important question: What can teachers do to promote the production of acetylcholine in the minds of their students?

The answer is very simple. Almarode submits that acetylcholine is produced in the brain as a result of events and experiences that are relevant and have meaning. Therefore, when something is deemed behaviorally relevant, a neurophysiological chain of events is set into motion that actually increases the formation of memories associated with the behaviorally relevant event.

The exercise below will help illustrate this idea.

Examine the list of 16 words below for 3 minutes and determine the number of words that have diagonal lines in them and the number of words that do not. At the end of three minutes, write down the words that have and do not have diagonal lines in them.

16 words horizonal

Next, examine the list below of 16 words for three minutes but this time think about the meaning of each word. Then rate the words on a scale of 1 to 10 on how much you like the word. After three minutes, write down the numbers of words remembered.

16 words meaning

On average, processing the meaning of the words results in remembering 2 to 3 times as many words as examining the architecture of the individual letters. Not surprising, the more meaning something has, the more memorable it becomes.

In his book Brain Rules, John Medina writes that our “brain is a survival organ, designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment and to do so in nearly constant motion (to keep you alive long enough to pass your genes on). We were not the strongest on the planet but we developed the strongest brains, the key to our survival.”

The brain accomplishes this feat by continuously trying to make sense out of the world, attempting to determine what is meaningful in what it experiences, according to Sarah Armstrong, Director, Master of Arts in Education Program at Eastern Mennonite University and President of Neuro-Education Consultants and author of numerous books. Every encounter with something new requires the brain to fit new information into an existing memory category, or network of neurons. If it can’t, the information will have no meaning,” she continues.

Consequently, if incoming information into the brain has no meaning, no neural connections will be established and the information will become extinct and forgotten.

Hattie posits that “the mind does not relate well to unstructured data, for example: learning random lists or coping with unrelated materials.” He believes that “to learn, your mind must be active. Learning occurs effectively once the mind responds to a meaningful experience through making a meaningful response. When the mind does something with the stimulus, it becomes memorable.”

In order to ensure precise encoding, effective instruction requires teachers to find the experiences students have had and hook new learning to them or create the experience with students. Anything that captures their attention and gets their minds engaged has the potential to produce learning. The opposite is true: no attention and engagement equals no learning.

An uncomplicated practice developed by George Miller that educators can use that incorporates the principles above and improves encoding is chunking. Miller describes chunking as a technique of taking smaller objects and grouping them into larger objects so they can be more easily remembered. Miller noted that the items did not have to be single bits but could be chunks of meaningful (“coherent”) information and may be made up of letters, numbers, sounds, or any other type of information the mind is capable of absorbing.

For instance, take about 14 seconds to try to memorize the following sequence of 14 individual letters:


This is difficult to do because 14 bits exceeds the capacity of your working memory. But what if you rearranged the same letters into meaningful units like these:


Now the letters form five chunks that are easy to remember. We see IBM as a single unit (chunk), and so on.

Below are additional examples of chunking.

It's much easier to remember 65-74-81-32 than it is to remember 65748132. Try remembering the letters TRTESEL. Now try remembering the same letters in this order: LETTERS. Because your brain is remembering a word instead of 7 random letters and the word has meaning, it doesn't have to work as hard. Essentially, you have compressed more information into a single chunk.

8912815 can be chunked as born 1989, in the month of December (12), at 8:15

177620011941 chunked as 1776 2001 1941

The reason why phone numbers are easier to remember is because a list of 10 numbers are chunked into two chunks of three numbers and one chunk of four numbers. The same principle applies to credit card and social security numbers.

In subsequent years, other researchers expanded on Miller’s work. Herbert Simon, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1978 for research on decision-making in organizations and one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, explained “How Big is a Chunk” (Science February 1974). Simon’s research led to investigators examining how expert chess players attain their mastery.

Experienced chess players can reproduce the exact configuration of all 16 chess pieces on a board after examining it for only five seconds. How is this possible? The difference between experts and novices appears to be that experts tend (because of great deal of experience) to organize information into much bigger chunks while novices work with isolated bits of information.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh estimate that a chess master has stored roughly 100,000 patterns of pieces on the chess board in long-term memory (Chase & Simon, 1973). By using this information, the player can code the position of all 16 pieces into two or three chunks of information, a number that can be easily handled by working memory.

By studying the manner in which chess players master chunks of information together, this study gives us an important clue for ‘improving” working memory. Although we cannot increase the number of chunks we can store., we can (by reorganizing or recoding) increase the amount of information that can be stored in a chunk.

Finally, if you are Christian like me, you will have many fond and vivid memories of holiday celebrations - whether it is a family tradition of religious cerebration, decorating the tree, or visiting relatives on Christmas Eve or Day. The reason these Christmas memories seem like they just happened, are easily told to one-and-all, and can be recalled with little effort, is because at the time they occurred, they were properly encoded due to the presence of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain since these experiences were truly meaningful to us.

Following a truly memorable, tumultuous, and eventful year not only in the U.S. but worldwide, I wish all a restful, memorable, and pleasant holiday, and strive to create a 2018 filled with hope, happiness, and peace.


“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.