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.

Dean Shareski on Facebook, filtering, and socializing

Dean Shareski, a digital learning consultant in Saskatchewan, has a post/podcast on Facebook, filtering, and all that.  He says that teachers in his division’s school struggle with how to keep students from wandering too far off task.

I gotta go update my status...What I like about the post is that Shareski has the teachers tell what they’re doing.  Three teachers share their views in print, followed by a recorded discussion between Shareski and a fourth teacher.

I wonder how many corporate organizations would start by asking rank-and-file workers (rather than up-and-comers at headquarters) for their views?

I’m impressed with the way the teachers want the students to learn how to be responsible not only for their own behavior, but for how they manage their time.  Shareski’s audio interview with teacher Patricia Yeske is worth listening to–in no small part because, she says, “When those laptops [first] came in, I wanted everything locked down.”

A few points that stood out:

  • By setting clear expectations early, Yeske says, students now freely ask, “Hey, can I go to such-and-such a site?”  They’re understanding the contextual nature of access in a classroom; it’s not just yes-or-no.
  • One obstacle I wondered about, and one Yeske mentions, is whether teachers are ready to justify to parents why the school does not block social networking sites like Facebook.
  • Many of these high schoolers don’t have email; they have Facebook.  That’s not only how they interact online with their friends; it’s also their digital backpack.
  • For them, Facebook isn’t anything special; it’s just a regular tool.

As Shareski and Yeske talked about socializing at school, and then perhaps socializing as student began collaborating on a project, I thought about adult workplace socializing.

For me, some of the best projects have been those where I could move freely between the people and the task.  Ruth Sizemore House touched on this in the incomprehensibly out-of-print book, The Human Side of Project Management–she had “Ruth’s radar” for project managers, with a task axis and a people axis.

There’s something similar for working adults: a way to maintain a dynamic balance between too little / too much focus on people, and too little / too much focus on the task.

I don’t often venture any more into the world of education, but I’m glad Dean’s sharing what he does.

Digital backpack photo by R.W.W. / Ambra Galassi.