Information Age Education Blog
Breaking the “Telling” Parts of Teaching Into Short Pieces
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; 1835–1910.)
The 50-minute lecture is a traditional component of higher education. Students listen, take notes, perhaps ask a few questions—and sometimes don’t pay much attention. Spencer Kagan’s IAE Newsletter article, Tellin’ain’t teaching’: The need for frequent processing, discusses why lectures should be broken into relatively short segments interspersed with small group student interactions (September, 2012). His ideas are applicable at all levels of education. He explains why presentations should be broken into blocks no longer than 10 minutes in length, and suggests that these blocks should be interspersed with activities designed to give students time to process the information that they are receiving.
Kagan’s article is one of 19 chapters in Creating an appropriate 21st century education, edited by Robert Sylwester and David Moursund (August, 2012). The book focuses on a combination of cognitive neuroscience and computer technology as aids to improve education.
Here is some background information about human memory. Quoting from the Information Age Education Newsletter (IAE, May 2010):
[Your] senses such as sight and hearing bring in an immense amount of information. Some of this is ignored, some goes into your subconscious where it is processed at a subconscious level, and some goes into your working memory. What goes into your working memory depends considerably on your focus of attention. Working memory and attention are closely related.
Your working memory directs various other parts of your brain to process the incoming information that you are paying attention to. Much of this processing is done in a highly automated manner, using the procedural and episodic parts of your long-term memory. For example, with little conscious effort, you can interpret meaning from a simple sentence you are reading or a simple utterance you are hearing. However, if the sentence or utterance is long and complex, your working memory must remember pieces of it in order to give direction to the rest of your brain in extracting meaning from the various interrelated pieces.
Your brain contains a very large amount of long-term memory, but it has a very small amount of working memory. More than 50 years ago George Miller (1956) published his seminal paper, The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Since then there has been considerable research on this quite limited—seven plus or minus two or perhaps a little less—capacity of working memory.
From Kagan’s point of view, a standard lecture quickly overloads a student’s working memory. Much of the information in working memory is forgotten before it can be appropriately processed, moved into long-term memory, and integrated with other long-term memories. Much of the information presented in lectures lacks the types of emotional and/or episodic content that make it “stick” (be retrievable over the long term) as it is moved into long-term memory.
Summary of Kagan’s Article
Processing time is provided by dividing students into small groups of two to four students, and having groups carry out specified small group interactions. The interactions are designed so that each student in a group must actively participate.
Here are Kagan’s six arguments for providing students with processing time:
1. Processing Clears Working Memory
As we lecture to our students, we fill working memory. After about ten chunks of information [George Miller suggests 7 plus or minus 2] 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 types of content and whether there are internal or external distractions…. Frequent processing clears working memory allowing for students a greater proportion of full, undivided attention to our content (Kagan, 2012).
2. 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…. Frequent processing moves content from short- to long-term memory, increasing the probability of later recall (Kagan, 2012).
3. Processing Produces Retrograde Memory Enhancement
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….
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 (Kagan, 2012).
4. 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.…
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 (Kagan, 2012).
5. Processing Creates Novel Stimuli, Increasing Alertness
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 the content (Kagan, 2012).
6. 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 (Kagan, 2012).
The lecture is an integral component of education. Quoting from the Wikipedia:
The practice in the medieval university was for the instructor to read from an original source to a class of students who took notes on the lecture. The reading from original sources evolved into the reading of glosses on an original and then more generally to lecture notes. Throughout much of history, the diffusion of knowledge via handwritten lecture notes was an essential element of academic life.…
Many lecturers were, and still are, accustomed to simply reading their own notes from the lectern for exactly that purpose. Nevertheless, modern lectures generally incorporate additional activities, e.g., writing on a chalk-board, exercises, class questions and discussions, or student presentations. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lecture#History.)
A combination of cognitive neuroscience research and modern Information and Communication Technology (ICT) devices is gradually changing the lecture mode of teaching. Such research and technology-based changes still have a long way to go before they can replace face-to-face small group discussions on a challenging topic.
These observations provide support for ongoing current experiments with an inverted curriculum in which students use ICT aids to study the assigned content for a class meeting before coming to class. Instead of listening to one long lecture, class time isspent mainly in small group and whole class discussions, answering questions, and introducing the content for the next class session..
What You Can Do
You already know that teaching and learning are two different things. When we are wearing our “teaching hats,” we sometimes forget that just because we do a good job of teaching, this does not necessarily mean that our students are learning what we are teaching.
Progress in brain science and in other aspects of learning theory can help you to modify your methods of teaching so that students learn and retain better. Experiment with the various uses of the processing time ideas discussed in this IAE Blog in order to learn what works well for you and your students. Share these ideas and what you are learning with others.
Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications
You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.
Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.
Here are some examples of publications that might interest you.
Brain-based Teaching Strategies to Build Executive Function. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/brain-based-strategies-to-build-executive-function.html.
Important Ideas about 21st Century Education. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/important-ideas-about-21st-century-education.html.
IAE (May, 2010). Working memory—A bottleneck in your brain. Information Age Education Newsletter. Retrieved 10/11/2012 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2010-41.html.
Retention of Knowledge and Skills from Education and Training. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/retention-of-knowledge-and-skills-from-education-and-training.html.
Some Underlying Theory about Electronic Games in Education. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/some-underlying-theory-about-electronic-games-in-education.html.
Staff Development to Improve Education. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/staff-development-to-improve-education-.html.
Twelve Brain Rules. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/twelve-brain-rules.html.
Kagan, S. (September, 2012). Tellin’ ain’t teaching’: The need for frequent processing. Information Age Education Newsletter. Retrieved 10/9/2012 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2012-98.html.
McGaw, J. (2003). Memory and emotion. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Miller, G.G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review. Retrieved 10/9/2012 from http://www.musanim.com/miller1956/.
Sylwester, R., & Moursund, D. (August, 2012). Creating an appropriate 21st century education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/243-creating-an-appropriate-
21st-century-education.html and the Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/
Written by davem, October 11, 2012 .
Students skilled in keyboarding who have a laptop in class benefit by being able to take more copious and legible notes during the lecture phases of a class. [As an aside, I am not familiar with research on the learning that occurs as a student hand writes class notes versus the learning that occurs as a student keyboards class notes. Certainly that is a researchable question.]
Kagan discusses a couple of processing time activities. Here is another one. During processing time, students may benefit by doing some “fact checking” and “seeking additional information” activities using their portable computing devices. They can develop and start to answer researchable questions. Such “just in time” online research may locate resources and ideas that can be shared with the whole class during debriefing time at the end of a planned processing time.