EFL and ESL teachers may reason that one of the major obstacles to learning seems to be ‘poor memory’. Sometimes, however, our English language students’ vacant looks appear because the classwork being reviewed was never perceived or processed adequately in the first place. The material presented in an earlier lesson never entered the information processing system of our students’ brains.
ESL EFL teachers what do you understand about information processing?
Billions of nerve cells – neurons – accept, analyse and accumulate information by transferring messages to each other via trillions of connections known as synapses. Learning and performing tasks helps create, develop and maintain these connections.
If you can imagine walking through a field of snow or strolling along the beach, the more you walk back and forth along the same path, the deeper and more visible your trail becomes. You reinforce the connection between the start point of your walk and its end point.
Similarly, repeating, rehearsing, retrieving and practising material strengthens the neurological pathways and connections between the neurons in your students’ brains. To get to this stage though, the information has to enter the neurological process.
If you don’t arrive at the field or the beach, you won’t be creating a path across either. In the same way, if the information you teach does not attract your students’ attention and sensory perception, it will not enter their neurological system and will not be processed and no connections will be formed.
Investigating breakdowns in processing
To try and understand why carefully chosen material may not enter the neurological system and why neural paths and connections might not be formed or reinforced, three different stages of information processing need to be considered:
1. Short-term sensory memory — responsible for the initial input
2. Short-term working memory — where rehearsal and integration of information takes place
3. Long-term memory — in control of storage, retrieval and output
Knowledge of the functions of these different stages of the memory process helps ESL/EFL teachers understand where a breakdown in language learning can occur: In the initial input, the integration, or in the systems of storage, retrieval and output? The most important stage to consider in our classrooms is the first one, short-term sensory memory.
Short-term memory: fleeting and fragile
At the outset, memories begin their formation by new information entering the short-term sensory memory. It acts as a brief storage area for stimuli received through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch — the eyes and ears being the primary sensory receivers. Any incoming information disregarded and not selected by the senses will decay and fade away or be replaced by new input and will not enter this temporary holding area.
This brief registering process — less than a second for visual sensations and about 4 seconds for auditory sensations — is fragile. Information processing at this first stage is influenced significantly by three essential factors: attention, meaning, and emotion.
Your lesson vs bird song
If you are presenting a new topic and a student becomes extremely interested in a bird tweeting outside, the cute, chirpy feathered friend on the window sill will become the focus of attention and take precedence and be perceived by the sensory system. Your thoughtfully prepared English language presentation will be a distant, disregarded hum in the background competing with the thoughts flooding into your student’s mind.
The neurological connections that your well-prepared information should have stimulated and created will not be formed. Therefore, the intended ‘learned’ information cannot be recalled later because it was never registered in the first place. Remember the trail mentioned above? Your student stood at the edge of the field and felt no incentive to walk across – let alone go back and forth because the information you provided did not peak their interest; it did not hold their attention and was not be picked up by any of their senses but the competing birdsong was.
As mentioned above, information processing at the first stage, the short-term sensory memory, is influenced significantly by three essential factors: attention, meaning, and emotion. If you can achieve planning a lesson incorporating these key elements – your students will be hooked and learning will take place.
More about attention and information processing in the next post.
If you are interested in finding out more about how to quickly and easily recognise and help struggling students and check if your lessons are ‘memory friendly’, join other teachers and professionals and check out my free how-to guides. Enjoy!
Other posts in this series
Tom Berger How to Maslow Before Bloom, All Day Long September 23, 2020
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