Primacy/recency, or, first (and last) things last

How the Brain Learns (David A. Sousa)I’ve been browsing through David A. Sousa’s How the Brain Learns.  Sousa aims to connect research about how the brain learns with what teachers and educators do on the job.  The fact that he’s plainly in the formal-teaching mode doesn’t detract from the potential value of the book, either for teachers or for people working in organizational learning.

As one small example, take the notion of primacy/recency.   This is a pair of related ideas: “in a learning episode, we tend to remember best that which comes first, and remember second best taht which comes last.”

Sousa does a couple of things:

  • Summarizes research underlying the effect.
  • Gives examples of how to apply the research to the classroom.
  • Revisits the principles through a recurring “Practitioner’s Corner” feature

For example, there’s chapter 3, Memory, Retention, and Learning. Its 58 pages includes discussion of how memory forms, types of memory, and the difference between learning and retention.

One factor affecting retention is the primacy-recency effect–essentially, the idea that in a “learning episode,” we recall the things that came first (primacy) and the things that came last (recency) better than we recall the things in the middle.  Several of Sousa’s points have value for adult learning:

Teach new material first. This isn’t just stating the obvious.  Sousa gives the example of an English teacher asking a class what onomatopoeia is.  There’s a brief discussion with lots of wrong answers (because the students had no idea).  But the wrong answers appeared on the subsequent test–in part because they occurred in that initial period.

Not that you should never invite learner ideas–but sometimes people just plain don’t know, and you shouldn’t dwell on that not-knowing.

Use the prime time wisely. Here’s Sousa:

Even with the best of intentions, teachers…can do the following:  after getting focus by telling the class the day’s lesson objective, the teacher tkes attendance, distributes the previous day’s homework, collects that days’ homework, requests notes from students who were absent, and reads an announcement aobut a club meeting after school….

as a finale, the teacher tells the students they were so well-behaved during the lesson that they can do anything they want during the last five minutes of class (i.e., during prime-time 2) as long as they are quiet.

How many training sessions have you endured with a similar pattern?

  • Today we’re going to learn how to effectively plan sales campaigns.
  • To start at the beginning, our company was founded by Zachary Bannockbread, a gifted salesman, in 1883…
  • Now let’s here from Clotilda MacAulay, vice-president of North American sales…
  • Look at these sales figures from 2005…
  • To get started, here’s a Selling Styles Inventory to complete…

Retention varies with length of episode. “As the lesson time lengthens, the percentage of down-time [when retention’s at its lowest] increases faster than for the prime -times.”

Shorter (in general) is better.  And varying the type of activity, the instructional method, or even the topic between peak periods is beneficial to learning.

Which doesn’t bode well for the cram-it-in school of thought.


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