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Tellin’ Ain’t Teachin’:
The Need for Frequent Processing
Kagan Executive Director Kagan Publishing and Professional
If teaching were the same
as telling, we’d all be so smart we could hardly stand it. (Mark
Twain—pen name of Samuel Clemens; American author and humorist;
If our academic content is gum, and the discussion and thinking
about the content (processing) by students is chew, then brain science
gives us a clear directive: Increase the ratio of chew to gum. A lot of
gum with no chew leads to little learning.
First, we will overview the neuroscience rationale for increasing the
frequency and amount of processing. There are many ways to have
students process learning: taking notes, writing summaries, making
drawings, discussing ideas. Here I will focus on just one way, what I
believe to be the most powerful form of processing: student interaction
over the content. After providing the neuroscience rationale for
increasing the amount of student interaction over content, we will turn
to the issue of how best to
have students interact. It turns out that some common ways of having
students process our academic content do not lead to equitable
educational outcomes. These common approaches to processing actually
contribute to the achievement gap! If we want all students to benefit
from the chew, we must carefully structure their interaction as they
process the content.
Neuroscience Support for Frequent Processing
This section summarizes six reasons for providing processing time to
Processing Clears Working Memory
Working memory has limited capacity: We can only hold a certain amount
of information in consciousness at one time (Cowan, 2005). This
limit is very adaptive; if we were juggling 100 things in working
memory, our attention would be so divided we could not function or
survive. Nevertheless, the limited capacity of working memory has
extreme implications for educators.
As we lecture to our students, we fill working memory. After about ten
chunks of information we have exceeded the limit of working memory’s
capacity for even the best of our students. The exact capacity of
working memory differs for different individuals depending on their age
and the complexity of the encoding process that an individual has
developed. It differs also for different types of content and whether
there are internal or external distractions. In all cases, however, the
capacity is quite limited.
As is often said, to continue lecturing beyond the capacity of working
memory is like pouring more water into a glass that is already full. If
we continue to lecture beyond the capacity of working memory, either
the next chunk of input is ignored, or goes in at the expense of
something already there. Long lectures reach the point of diminishing
returns. Punctuating the lecture with frequent processing repeatedly
clears working memory so students can take in new information with
Often, during workshops on this topic, I ask participants if they have
ever had so much to do or so much on their mind that they felt “cloudy
headed.” That is, they felt they couldn’t concentrate, and couldn’t
take in any more information. All hands go up. I then ask how many have
had the experience, when they felt like that, of sitting down and
writing a To Do list or list of things they have on their mind. All
hands go up. Finally I ask, “How many of you, after writing that list,
felt much better—felt you could again concentrate, that you could take
in new information?” Once again all hands go up, usually with a smile
or laugh of recognition. What has happened in those moments? When
working memory is full, we know we cannot take in any more information.
By writing down what is on our mind, we move things from working memory
to the piece of paper, so we don’t have to keep those things in working
memory. We clear working memory and so can take in new information with
a clear mind. By frequently clearing working memory while we teach,
students can attend to a great proportion of our content with undivided
attention, rather than with a “cloudy head.” This then provides the
first brain-based rationale for frequent processing: Frequent
processing clears working memory allowing for students a greater
proportion of full, undivided attention to our content.
Processing Stores Content in Long-Term Memory
During processing students discuss the content, analyze it, and relate
it to prior knowledge. They connect the new learning to their own prior
knowledge and to the new knowledge provided by those with whom they are
interacting. They are actually rewiring their brains, making dendrite
connections. The information is placed in more places in the brain, and
so there are more associative links. This dramatically increases the
probability of later recall.
A person gives us a telephone number to call. We hold the number in
short-term memory long enough to make our call. After making the call,
someone asks us for the number. We say we can’t remember. It is gone!
Why? Content does not move from short-term to long-term memory
automatically. The two memory systems are completely independent
(McGaw, 2003). To remember the number—or anything else—long-term, we
must move the content from short- to one of our long-term memory
systems. Each of us has different ways of doing that. If it is a
telephone number, some of us look at the relation of the numbers to
each other, some of us create a visual image of the number, others of
us link the numbers to words or even make a number sentence, and yet
others use one of the many mnemonic devices. Whichever process is used,
the numbers are placed in long-term memory through thinking about the
numbers, processing them. Processing is the golden key to move content
from short- to long-term memory.
This then, provides the second brain-based rationale for frequent
processing: Frequent processing
moves content from short- to long-term memory, increasing the
probability of later recall.
Emotion cements memory. Emotion is a signal to the hippocampus: You
better remember this! James McGaw and his research team at the
University of California, Irvine, established the principle of
Retrograde Memory Enhancement (McGaw, 2003). The principle is simple:
Anything followed by emotion is better remembered. It is why almost all
of us remember where we were when we first heard about the 911
terrorist attacks, but few of us remember where we were the day before
or the day after. The principle is rooted in the brain’s primary
function: survival. What are emotional events? They are the good stuff
and the bad stuff; the painful stuff and the pleasurable stuff.
Remembering those events helps us survive. Touch the hot stove, and you
remember not to do that again. Enjoy the first kiss, and it is likely
you will remember it and go back for more.
What does this have to do with frequent processing? Usually, but not
always, more emotion is generated in a lively interaction with a peer
than is generated by a lecture by a professor. By frequently
punctuating the lecture with processing time, the professor links the
content to emotion. Thus, processing
releases the power of retrograde memory enhancement to make our
academic content more memorable.
Processing Creates Episodic Memories
Usually, a lecture provides facts and information that are stored in
the semantic memory system. The semantic memory system handles isolated
facts and bits of information. When content for semantic memory is not
processed, not put into a meaningful context and internalized, it is
far less likely to be maintained. When students cram for a test, too
often they are attempting to put information into the semantic memory
system, but because they are not fully processing the content they
retain the information only long enough to spit it back on the test. A
few weeks later, or often much sooner, and the information is gone.
The semantic memory system is more fragile than the episodic and
procedural memory systems. Anxiety interferes with semantic memory:
that is why sometimes even if we know the name of someone very well,
our mind goes blank when we go to introduce them to a group in a social
Procedural and episodic memories are more stable. As we get older we
forget the names of things, but don’t forget how to drive a car or
brush our teeth (procedural memories) or the time we got married or the
time we lost our car keys and had to walk home (episodic memories).
What does all this have to do with the desirability of frequent
processing? As students interact over the content, they very often
create an episodic memory. Why? Episodic memories are created when an
event has a beginning and an end as well as a location, especially if
there is emotion associated with the event. When students turn to a
partner for an animated interaction, the event has a beginning and an
end, a location, and is associated with emotion. Such processing often creates episodic
memories that are more stable than semantic memories.
Processing breaks up the routine of the direct instruction, providing
novel stimuli. By having students process the content at different
times with different partners, we create additional novel stimuli.
Further, what a partner might say during the processing time is
additional novel stimuli. We become more alert when presented with
novel stimuli, providing yet another brain-based rationale for frequent
processing: Processing increases
student alertness, which in turn increases the probability of recall of
Processing Activates Many Parts of the Brain
While processing content with a partner, many parts of the brain are
activated. Wernicke’s area decodes the words of our partner. Broca’s
area encodes our own words. The temporal lobe processes not only words,
but also decodes tone of voice. The visual cortex processes the face of
our partner as well as their gestures and body language. Mirror neurons
decode the feelings projected by our partner. Further, the prefrontal
cortex is very active as we must either assimilate the information
provided by our partner or adjust our way of thinking about the world
(accommodate) because our partner has provided information that doesn’t
fit with our cognitive framework. Thus,
processing places the content in more places in the brain, creating
more associative links, enhancing memory.
How We Process Makes all the Difference!
Having grasped the importance of processing, some instructors use a
simple “Turn and Talk” approach. They stop talking and ask
students to discuss a problem or issue presented in the lecture. What
they do not know is that these simple, unstructured interactions
actually increase the achievement gap among students!
Picture a highly motivated, high achiever paired with an unmotivated,
low achiever. The instructor does a Turn and Talk. Who will do most or
even all of the talking? Whose mind will be off topic? When we test
later, the motivated, high achiever has benefited from the processing,
but the low achiever has not. We have inadvertently increased the
To improve learning and increase educational equity, I began a program
in the early 1980s developing cooperative interaction sequences I
called Structures. I call them structures because they are carefully
designed to “structure” students’ interaction patterns. To date my
colleagues and I have developed more than 200 different ways of
structuring the interaction among students (Kagan and Kagan, 2012).
Some structures are explicitly designed to foster the formation of
episodic memories; others develop procedural memories, yet others
create semantic memories. Still yet others exercise working memory.
Let’s briefly examine two simple, all-purpose structures that can be
used by any instructor for processing during any lesson: RallyRobin and
Timed Pair Share.
Let’s imagine an instructor wants students to process the content by
naming as many things as they can think of that answer a question. For
examples, name all the alternative plausible hypotheses to explain a
phenomenon, all the facts covered so far, steps in completing a
project, or simply animals found in the rainforest. The instructor
could do a Turn and Talk, which often results in the high achiever
doing most or even all the talking. Or the instructor could do a
RallyRobin: Students in pairs simply take turns contributing to the
oral list. By structuring for turn taking, the instructor ensures equal
participation and ensures that all students contribute. This reduces
the achievement gap.
Sometimes an instructor might want students to speak at length on a
topic, say provide an opinion or an interpretation. One structure that
allows equal participation for elaborated thinking is a Timed Pair
Share. Each student in turn shares for a predetermined amount of time.
Again, by using a structure that equalizes participation, we reduce
rather than exacerbate the achievement gap.
Tellin’ Ain’t Teaching
For a variety of reasons, our students remember far more of what
they say than what they hear. Listening is passive. While listening to
a teacher, not nearly as much goes on in the brain as when students put
their thoughts together, verbalize their thinking, and interact with
others who might have different information or a different point of
view. So, if our goal is understanding and retention, our best course
is to frequently stop talking and let our students talk. But then, if
we are going to have our students interact, we need to carefully
structure that interaction so all students participate about equally.
With frequent, carefully structured processing in place, we promote
better learning for all students.
Cowan, N. (2005). Working
memory capacity. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Kagan, S. and Kagan, M. (2012). Kagan cooperative learning. San
Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.
McGaw, J. (2003). Memory
and emotion. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven plus or
minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychology Review, 63, 81-97.
Dr. Spencer Kagan is an internationally acclaimed researcher,
presenter, and author of over 100 books, chapters, and journal
articles. He is a former clinical psychologist and full professor of
psychology and education at the University of California. He is the
principal author of the single most comprehensive book for educators in
each of four fields: cooperative learning, multiple intelligences,
classroom discipline, and classroom energizers. Dr. Kagan developed the
concept of structures; his popular brain-based, cooperative learning,
and multiple intelligences structures like Numbered Heads Together and
Timed Pair Share are used in teacher-training institutes and classrooms
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