Don’t forget that we’ve all got a limited memory

13th October 2017 at 00:00
Recap activities, visual aides and analogies can help learners to absorb new information

We’ve all sat through endless continuous professional development (CPD) delivered within our institutions on topical issues such as assessment for learning (AfL), “stretch and challenge”, differentiation, target setting, equality and diversity, and active learning… the list goes on. But put your hand up if you’ve ever had training on how best to present or explain content to learners? No, me neither.

Before I continue, I’m not advocating that teachers should be “sages on stages” because, in many cases, this would be ineffectual. What I do think is that the teacher’s expert knowledge and experience, and therefore input, is what our learners are effectively paying for. Consequently, we should ensure that we are delivering this in the best possible way to support achievement.

We know from learning science and associated theories that our working memory has a very limited capacity, and we have a wealth of research to show us that the load caused by how information is explained or presented can seriously impede learning.

With this in mind, here are two strategies to consider that may help to improve how you present new information in the classroom:

1. Activating prior knowledge

It is theorised that our long-term memory has many organised patterns of knowledge, known as schema.

Each schema acts as a single item in working memory, so can be handled more easily than having lots of new, isolated information.

Through retrieving information from the long-term memory via recap activities, such as knowledge organisers, quizzes and discussions, students can bring crucial information to working memory. Having this information at the forefront of their minds can help them to make sense of the new information being presented. Classroom experiments have shown this technique to have positive effects on achievement.

When explaining a new concept, provide learners with clear step-by-step verbal explanations, alongside a simple visual representation to allow them to take in the information both auditorily and visually. This is known as dual coding and it can help to reduce the burden on our working memory.

There are many ways to display information visually for learners; for instance, using graphs and charts to show relationships, graphic organisers to map out information in a systematic way, or diagrams to show processes.

The key to effective instruction when using any of these visual tools is to keep your explanation clear and concise and ensure that it corresponds to the visual being used, otherwise it could impede the learning.

In classroom instruction that works, Marzano and colleagues cite the use of simple analogies, metaphors or similes to explain complex concepts as being a highly effective method of instruction.

The more easily learners can relate to these, the better. For example, when teaching about photosynthesis, the teacher might begin with the analogy that “carbon dioxide to plants is like oxygen to humans”. This helps learners to identify the importance of carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis.

Having several different ways to explain things using analogies, metaphors or similes is essential for supporting all learners with instruction, and when we can make links to what they already know, it eases the burden on working memory.

2. Using worked examples

There is a wealth of studies showing the positive impact of using worked examples to enhance learning. According to Clark and colleagues, “a worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem”.

These steps provide learners with direction and support to create mental models of how to tackle a problem or task, or appreciate what a good example looks like.

For example, when explaining to hairdressing students how to mix colours for an individual’s hair, providing a step-by-step worked example, using a colour wheel to determine correct ratios, will serve to support learners better than just telling them alone. They can then refer to the model example at any point of difficulty and thereby reduce that burden on their working memory.

The vast majority of teachers in the education and training sector aspire to be dual professionals, but pedagogical CPD doesn’t always support this. I encourage all practitioners to reflect on their explanations and how they present new information to learners to ensure that they are minimising the burden on working memory, thus maximising the learning potential.


Dan Williams is a lecturer in post-14 education and training at the University of Derby. He tweets @FurtherEdagogy

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