Sometimes doing nothing is actually doing something--something good for your memory, that is. New research suggests that when trying to memorize new information, taking a break, dimming the lights and sitting quietly can reap benefits. This is known as reduced interference.
Of course, this is actually nothing new. In 1900, German psychologist Georg Elias Muller and his student Alfons Pilzecker conducted experiments on memory consolidation. When studying meaningless syllables, half the group was given a six-minute break. When tested 2.5 hours later, the group with the break remembered nearly 50% of their list, compared to 28% for the group with no break.
In the early 2000s, a study by Sergio Della Sala at the University of Edinburgh and Nelson Cowan at the University of Missouri. They followed Muller and Pilzecker's original study, but with a 10 minute break, and the participants with neurological injury (eg. stroke) improved from 14 to 49%, similar to healthy people. More impressive results came with listening to stories and answering questions. Without rest, they could only recall 7% of the facts; with rest, this jumped to 79% recall.
The process is not yet known, but generally memories, after encoding, are consolidated into long-term memory. This seems to occur during sleep, as communication between the hippocampus and the cortex build and strengthen the new neural connections for later recall. Perhaps surprisingly, Lila Davachi at New York University, in 2010, found similar neural activity during periods of wakeful rest, just lying down and letting your mind wander.
In terms of education, this could mean the difference between rapidly switching from once subject to the next, and giving students a five-minute break just to sit and contemplate and reflect on their learning (with dimmed lights), of course.
Source: David Robson, BBC Future, February 11, 2018
Examples of Working Memories Difficulties
Reduce Memory Load
Source: CanLearn Society - www.canlearnsociety.ca ©2013
Willingham's cognitive principle is that factual knowledge must precede skill. The current mode of thinking nowadays is that only critical thinking is necessary and the actual content, information, or knowledge is merely interchangeable; after all, one can do an Internet search and find information on any topic in seconds. However, thinking processes are intertwined with knowledge, perhaps surprisingly.
READING COMPREHENSION REQUIRES BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
One study shows that even poor readers with high background knowledge of the reading understood the text better than good readers with low knowledge. Background information allows chunking (grouping of information), which allows your working memory to have more space to connect ideas and thoughts, leading to better comprehension.
Four ways background knowledge aids comprehension:
The "fourth-grade slump" is a phenomenon that hits underprivileged homes. Up to grade three, most students are good decoders, but reading comprehension becomes increasing important in grade 4 and up. Because comprehension is dependent on background knowledge, privileged kids come to school with more knowledge about the world and a larger vocabulary.
COGNITIVE SKILLS REQUIRES BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
Thinking critically or logically often comes from what you know. To solve a problem, you first check your long-term memory to see if your solution already lies there. Think of the world's best chess players; it's not necessarily their reasoning or planning skills but rather their recall of board positions. They may have up to 50000 board game positions in their long-term memory! This goes for chefs, who can look at a kitchen pantry and whip up a delicious meal quickly, while regular folks may end up scratching their heads and end up making macaroni and cheese. In class, someone who has memorized the times tables will be able to solve a problem requiring that information faster than someone who has to figure it out by counting. This saves a lot of room in working memory to solve the rest of the problem.
Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Willingham hopes you realize that actually knowledge is necessary for imagination that leads to problem solving, decision making, and creativity.
Source: Why Don't Students Like School?, Willingham, Daniel T., 2009.
Language-processing problems constitute the largest proportion of learning disabilities. These include hearing sounds and words, understanding meaning, remembering verbal content, and communicating clearly.
The following are just a few examples:
Speech and Language Comprehension
Students tend to process information more slowly than usual. Sometimes teachers move on when they feel a response is not forthcoming. Often these students may be considered unmotivated or lazy. Also, language-processing disabilities affect their thinking. Language (words) are necessary to name people, places and things. Social development is influenced with this disability as they struggle with speaking, so they become fearful, shy and withdrawn; some deal in the opposite manner and become bullies. Others prefer to spend time with younger kids, using simpler language.
Word usage and comprehension is found in the left cerebral cortex. Inefficient neural "networking" can also result in processing issues. Some areas are underworked while others are handling too much. There also appears to be a genetic or heredity link with family members, as well.
The best way to intervene is with early recognition and appropriate and intense instruction. Special education is essential. They can use audio materials or simplified texts to handle the information overload. Extra time is often needed for tests and assignments. Test questions may need to be read to them. Teachers may need to speak slower and with simpler one-step instructions. Technology can assist in many ways with reading texts aloud, dictation, voice-to-text recognition, along with spelling and grammar checking.
Despite reading, writing or verbal problems, students with this language-processing disability can end up achieving amazing things, especially in professions that do not rely on advanced language skills: medical technology, architecture, finance, photography, engineering, mechanics, TV production, fine arts and computer programming, to name a few. The key thing is to maintain understanding and encouragement in order to maintain their self-confidence and enthusiasm for learning.
Source: Learning Disabilities: A to Z; Corinne Smith and Lisa Strick, 2010
Most of us have heard the analogy that our brain is a thinking machine. But, according to Willingham, our brains are not really designed for thinking, because it is slow and unreliable, and requires much effort. In fact, your brain uses most of its processing power to see things and to move around physically. Nonetheless, the good news is that people are curious, as long as the problem is not too easy or too difficult--the Goldilocks special.
So how do we manage to get through life if we don't think well? Essentially, we rely on our memories. Once we've figured out how to do something once (or twice), then we rely on our memory system to recall that piece of information, so that our brains don't have to work hard and figure it out again. For example, when driving a car, you don't have to relearn how to press the accelerator, apply the right amount of pressure on the brakes for stopping, shifting gears, checking for cars on the side, and much more. All those discrete steps are memorized and now recalled perfectly and efficiently. That explains why travelling to a country with a different language and culture is so tiring: you have to relearn all of the simple rules and customs of that particular place.
How does thinking work in basic terms? There are four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory. If any of these is lacking, then thinking will likely fail.
Therefore, one of the reasons why students don't like school is because the tasks and problems they face are either too easy or too difficult, or the thinking required to solve them breaks down in one of the four key areas. So what can be done to alleviate this conundrum?
Have solvable problems: Make sure students have a variety of cognitive work during the day that pose moderate challenge. Are there cognitive breaks? Consider their suitability.
Respect Students' Cognitive Limits: Do students have the necessary background information to solve the mental challenge? If not, prepare them accordingly. Also, don't overload their working memory. Slow the pace and use memory aids, such as writing on the board.
Clarify the Problems: It's difficult for any problem to be "relevant" to an entire group of diverse learners with unique interests. When planning a lesson, start with the information you want students to learn. Then prepare key questions at the right level of difficulty to engage your students and respect their cognitive limitations.
When to Puzzle Students: Do we start with a thought-provoking question, or conduct an interesting demonstration or present a fact? Which is more effective? Sometimes a startling experiment can capture students' attention, but without the proper background information, the temporary thrill will be akin to a magic trick.
Student variance and differentiation: Because students come to class with varying levels of preparedness, understanding, motivation, it is best to assign work that best suits their current level of readiness.
Change the Pace: If you feel you're losing the attention or interest of the learners, then switch gears, change topics, start a new activity or find out what they are having difficulty with, or if it is too easy.
Keep a Diary: As a teacher to improve professionally, it's important to keep track to successes and failures, in order to build up a library of best practices. What worked best for the students? What failed miserably?
Source: Why don't Students like school? Daniel T. Willingham, 2009
Nicolas Carr wrote a fabulous essay in the Atlantic in 2008, which is still, or even more, relevant today. It was entitled, "Is Google Making us Stupid?" Having access to the "world's information at your fingertips" at first glance seems like a great idea--the more you know and all that good stuff.
However, media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted in the 1960s that the "medium is the message." The internet is beginning to change how we think, simply because of its addictive, hyperlink structure. Although it may be a boon for a writer or researcher--being able to find resources, quotes, facts in seconds--as a reader, it sends people on wild (but often fun) goose chases all over a virtual landscape.
Scholars at University College London conducted a five-year research program and found that people using the British Library and a U.K. educational consortium of journals, ebooks and other resources, found most people only read a page or two before jumping to another resource. They were skimming or "power browsing," seemingly trying to find quick answers to their questions.
Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, described our internet reading
style as efficient and immediate; people are now "mere decoders of information." Deep reading that creates rich mental connections are nowhere to be found.
What's powerful about the medium of the internet, a computer system, is its all-consuming nature. It has swallowed up all the old technologies and reshaped and reformed them in its unique image: it is now a map, clock, printing press, typewriter, calculator, phone, radio and TV, according to Carr.
Interestingly enough, even Socrates (in Plato's Phaedrus) bemoaned the development of writing. He worried that the information that previously was stored in their heads would now remain only in written form. People would "cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful." Although some of his fears were founded, other wonderful benefits, such as expanding human knowledge and spreading ideas, made up for that loss. Similarly, the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century brought along similar concerns: books would lead to intellectual laziness and weaken their minds, as well as "undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery." Of course, much of that did come to pass, but as did a myriad of benefits to society.
So in the end, are fears concerning the internet as unfounded as writing or the printing press? Perhaps. But Carr warns us, using Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, by saying that as we rely more on computers to understand the world, the more our intelligence becomes more robotic and artificial. Our humanity may be at stake the more we strive to achieve this superior or artificial intelligence. And wouldn't you know it, Larry Page told scientists at a convention that Google is "really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale."
Source: Utopia is Creepy and other Provocations, Nicolas Carr, 2016
Erratic working memory and a faulty attention system (impaired executive functions) leads to procrastination. Think of working memory like RAM in a computer; without enough RAM, the brain forgets what it was working on, and moves onto the next task at hand.
People with ADHD also have the uncanny propensity to forget or suppress their goals or important activities they need to complete and instead spend time on trivial tasks, even when they know the consequences of failure in these more critical tasks.
Yet, people with ADHD also "benefit" from procrastination, though probably in somewhat unhealthy ways. When they reach a point of "do-or-die," then a couple of things happen: cortisol (stress response and stress hormone) and dopamine (neurotransmitter of attention system) activate in the body. Suddenly, the frontal cortex is "turned on" and RAM and executive functions begin to work normally. Then these individuals are able to focus their effort and attention on the task at hand.
Therefore, as painful as procrastination can be, people with ADHD still feel they are able to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last minute, which continues this cycle of procrastination.
Source: The Disorganized Mind, Nancy A. Ratey, 2008
Learning takes effort. The harder it is (usually), the better you remember and learn. A classic example is how many major tests are often structured: first, true and false; next, multiple-choice; then comes short answer; finally, there's the long-answer or essay question. The key is generation. If your choices are already there in front of you, as in the case of T/F or multiple-choice, there is very little effort and no generation of the solution. However, short- or long-answer questions require retrieval and memory pathways are strengthened as the problem is being worked out.
Another method in improving learning involves reflection. It only requires a few minutes of review after an experience or lesson. The cognitive activities involved are retrieval (recalling knowledge), elaboration (connecting new knowledge to previous), and generation (using own words to understand key concepts).
Source: Make it stick: the science of successful learning, Brown, Roediger III, McDaniel, 2014
It seems, after all, testing is good for student learning. Testing helps reduce forgetting, which is the nemesis of the retrieval and remembering of information and knowledge.
A real-life study at Columbia Middle School in Illinois in 2005 put promising lab results "to the test." Certain social studies classes were given quizzes on about a third of the material: one in the beginning of the class, one at the end of class, and one 24 hours before the unit exam. Clickers were used to answer multiple choice questions. Results: the students scored a full grade higher on material they were quizzed on compared to material not quizzed.
Of course, tests that are more cognitively challenging, such as essays or short-answers, are more beneficial in learning, although recognition tests like multiple choice or true/false are still surprisingly useful.
Rereading texts and cramming for exams are probably the two worst methods to learn and acquire information.
Interestingly, delaying feedback, especially in motor skills, such as sports, is more effective than immediate feedback. Immediate feedback is akin to "training wheels" that artificially support a rider far beyond their necessity. Let students use trial-and-error to make corrections, wait, and then give feedback. Delayed subsequent retrieval requires more effort, and more effort strengthens learning.
Source: Make it stick: the science of successful learning, Brown, Roediger III, McDaniel, 2014
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.