Are you bombarding your students with too much new information in order to rush through the curriculum? Are they being rushed and left knowing and remembering very little of what has been ‘taught’?
Content: Focus On Attention, Meaning And Emotions
We shape our perceptions and understand our surroundings when past experiences connect with incoming sensory information. During this first phase of sensory data processing, we tend to be unaware of the intensity of the information being filtered for selection through our senses. However, it is important for English language teachers to understand, as mentioned in a previous post, that attention, meaning and emotions are key factors affecting which incoming sensory information our neurological system ‘chooses’ to process. Once the selected information has moved through the sensory processing stage, it reaches the short-term working memory. If your beautifully planned task reaches this stage, a number of other factors need to be taken into consideration
Teachers: Provide Limited Amounts Of Material
Short-term working memory works like a busy middleman using a more conscious level of processing that receives, recycles, sorts out, and finally assimilates incoming information with previously saved memories. However, this active processor has its limitations.
Limited Time And Storage
ESL / EFL teachers need to remember that short-term memory is exactly that. Some types of information are held there for less than 20 seconds – others much less.
Use your own experiences as an example. When you are trying to remember information, for example, a few things on a shopping list or a phone number, you will repeat it, perhaps try to visualise it or write it down or it fades away. Your students need the same opportunities and guidance when new material is presented.
Not only is time a factor, for English language teachers, it is important to know when planning lessons that the ‘storage space’ available in the short-term working memory system is limited.
Students can only hold small amounts of new information in their ‘minds’ at any given time. So it is important to avoid cognitive overload. A student cannot be expected to process more than nine parallel chunks of information at any one time.
Test yourselves. Ask someone to place ten random items on a tray for you to look at for a minute or say ten random names for you to repeat. How many can you remember? Why do you think telephone numbers are broken down into chunks?
Repeat, Recycle, Rehearse, Reinforce
Because of the temporary, limited nature of this stage of information processing repeating and recycling information is essential. Any new topic being presented at needs reinforcement so neurological connections can be created and strengthened.
If not enough meaningful practice takes place, the carefully prepared subject material may fade away very quickly from the short-term working memory and not advance into the long-term memory system for processing and retention.
Alternatively, the material may be ‘stored’ in a ‘degraded’ form and become ‘lost’ in the memory system. If either of these happens, when your EFL / ESL students are presented with this topic in the future, they will be unable to retrieve very little about it. It will be as if you are presenting brand new material.
No Stress, Distractions Or Overload
In addition to short-term working memory’s limiting factors of ‘space’ and ‘time’ be aware that students cannot process information effectively when there is:
- a feeling of anxiety, distress, fear or any other negative emotional issue
- more than one simultaneous train of thought using the same sensory mode (teacher talking, student whispering to another class member)
Teachers — Top Tips
Try to keep your English language lessons ‘working memory friendly’
- Create an EFL / ESL classroom atmosphere that is calm and predictable.
- Keep students’ attention focused on the material being taught.
- Trigger previous knowledge to help students receive and integrate new information.
- Group information into familiar or meaningful sets.
- Present small, significant, manageable chunks of information.
- Go over new material more than once using different methods.
- Support limited memory capacity by using visuals, lists, diagrams, and highlighting essential information.
- Question students, to recycle information and confirm their understanding of the material being taught.
I have put together a useful and practical memory matters toolkit and checklist you can download to help you create lessons that are memory friendly.
Other Posts In This Series
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 any supporting free how-to-guides and resources. Enjoy!
Copyright Lesley Lanir. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
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If you have concerns about students, consult with educators and other professionals in your education establishment or school to determine what steps to take and how problems can be addressed.