Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Polkadots and Sunbeams

"I'm just not good at remembering things."

I wish I could tell you how many times I've heard -- and said -- that sentence. But I've long since lost count. I envision the "dark matter" of the universe as a sea of forgotten phone numbers and names, floating around with half-forgotten algebra rules and geometry postulates, historical dates, recipes, and the occasional odd sock. It's a nightmare, really. The question is: Why can't we remember these things?

The answer has a lot to do with why we see polkadots, right after we stupidly stare at the sun.

We have achieved the first stage of putting something into memory: We successfully focused our attention long enough for a stimulus to be imprinted in our sensory registers, or "immediate memory" banks. But, just as the spots in front of our eyes will fade, any sensory imprint will fade -- and be gone forever -- in a little under a minute**. Now, a minute is a long time if you count out the seconds...

(Go ahead, try it. I'll wait.)

...and it's a REALLY LONG TIME when staring at the blackboard in a boring class, or smiling and nodding at an insipid conversationalist at a party. It feels like forever. It feels like it's literally being burned into our memory. And if we "test" ourselves during that minute, we may think we have successfully memorized whatever it was we just saw or heard. But we haven't.

In order to turn that sensory imprint into a lasting memory, we must pull it into our working memory and actively think about it. Ask ourselves if it fits in with other things we have seen or heard, and how, and why (or why not). Ask ourselves if it makes sense. Try to find ways to link it to things we already know, to build schema that include the new information, as discussed in "Tinker Toy Traffic."

According to educational research**, this process of intentional learning is one of the major factors that separates struggling students from successful learners. So, next time you are in a boring class, letting the sights and sounds wash over you, counting the seconds until lunch, try asking yourself some questions about the material being covered. Try to build factoids into a schema. You're stuck there anyway. Might as well make the most of it.

written by Larisa Naples, M.S.Ed., Ph.D.

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* Photos in this post are protected by a creative commons attribution license:

"BlueSpot" was created by Larisa Naples, as an inversion of:
"Sol" by Amanda Vivan (www.amandavivan.com)
"Stopwatch" is by Erica Marshall (www.muddyboots.org)
** For those interested in the research behind this post, check out:
Bereiter, Carl & Scardamalia, Marlene. (1989) "Intentional Learning as a Goal of Instruction," in Robert Glaser & Lauren B. Resnick (Eds.), Learning, Knowing, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glasser., Published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 361-390.

Sousa, David A. (2006) How the Brain Learns (3rd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


Anonymous said...


You use the phrase "boring class." I was wondering what is known about "boring." Often it seems to be used by students to cover up or excuse not trying (to be prepared, to focus attention, etc.). It also seems to shift the blame onto the teacher. What can students do to avoid boredom? What can the teacher do? Can we learn not to be bored even in the face of a teacher that tends to bore us? A poor teacher, perceived or real, does not relieve us of the need to learn.

Michael R.

Larisa Naples, M.S.Ed., Ph.D. said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your comment!

Here's my personal brain-dump on boredom: it is a negative emotional state, typically caused by an inability to connect meaningfully with the experience at hand. There are a wide range of possible causes, some of which can be controlled only by the student, some of which can be controlled only by the teacher, and some of which (certain mental/emotional dysfunctions such as ADHD or clinical depression) require medical intervention -- though, as I understand it, this latter category is actually pretty rare, and in any case, is well outside my sphere of expertise. So, I can only speak to the two cases in which pathology is not an issue.

Things the teacher can control:

1 - The material is far too simple and repetitive for the particular student. In this case the material gets filtered out by the brain as unimportant "background noise" that requires no attention.

2 - The material is far to complex for the particular student to assimilate, given the state of their prior knowledge. In this case, the student quickly experiences cognitive overload, and, with nothing convenient in their personal memory banks to which to connect the new material, they give up and check out, to protect themselves from the impending headache.

In these cases, it is really the teacher's job to monitor the students, and adjust the pace of instruction, to keep the students challenged but not overwhelmed.

Granted, this kind of monitoring can be challenging, or close to impossible if class sizes are sufficiently large -- but the effort should be made.

What the student can control:

1 & 2 (above) In both of the above cases, it is important for the student to offer feedback to the teacher about the pacing and complexity, by raising their hand, or meeting the teacher outside of class, so the teacher CAN help that student meet his/her learning needs -- with extra help or supplemental challenges -- as appropriate.

3 - The material seems irrelevant to the student's life and interests.

Although teachers can and do attempt to "make their teaching relevant" to students' lives, the truth is that NOTHING will feel perfectly relevant to all students at all times. Only the student knows his/her own, personal history, interests, experiences, and knowledge base. It is up to the student to spend time in class not only listening and watching and practicing skills, but also *thinking* about how the new material might relate to *anything* they happen to already know (and that anything does not have to be other factoids learned in that class). Though a teacher might make a presentation entertaining or amusing, it is only when the learner discovers for themselves how new information fits in with other things they know and believe that the process of learning can become truly emotionally rewarding and fun.