I spent the day last week reflecting with a colleague about how sometimes, no matter how well you plan or explain things, students simply don’t get what it is that you are saying. At times our most skilfully crafted explanations can be met with the most glazed over look. A trance like state confronts you and you quickly scramble through your thoughts to work out at what point did your best efforts force the class to “zone out.” But it isn’t always this extreme. I could easily lose count of the times over the years when I would be confident I had explained a complex topic, concept or principle, only to be met with ‘What? I don’t get it!’. The instant reaction would be shock. How could my perfectly constructed demonstration, accompanied by a carefully worded description, cause such confusion?
But it doesn’t just stop there? If I had managed to make the complex simple, there are still those times when I set students off on what I would deem an easy enough task, only to find 5 minutes in that most of the class were stuck or confused. How is this so?
My initial reaction would understandably have been to question the students. It has to be them! Doesn’t it? As years have gone on and I have become more experienced, I have also become more reflective and critical of my own practice. Digging into various books and blog posts have made me realise that actually the root cause of this problem is not as distant as I had thought. What if it wasn’t simply the students but how I present information that creates such confusion? If it is, then that’s something within my own control and easy for me to tweak and change.
If you have ever read through the various work of cognitive science you would have probably come across an explanation of the working memory. The mind is an incredible thing but has its own limitations. The first and probably most relevant is the capacity restrictions on the working memory. The working memory is the processing unit we use when we think, talk, listen, watch, problem solve and more. You are using it right now as you try to decipher the words in this post and make meaning of them. The working memory is an amazing piece of kit and makes how we function as human truly unique. With all of its beauty, the working memory does have restrictions.
George A. Millar (1956) explained what he called ‘The Magical Number 7’. He worked out that the working memory itself had the ability to process 7 pieces of information, plus or minus 2. Over the years other researchers have argued that this number actually could be slightly less. Either way, what this highlights is that the working memory can only compute relatively small pieces of information before it becomes too much. This ‘overwhelming’ has been termed by Educational Psychologist John Sweller as ‘Cognitive Load’. It is the time when the working memory receives too much information which it is unable to process effectively and ultimately causes students to forget, get confused or misunderstand.
So why does this happen? The working memory receives this information and tries its hardest to make sense of it. It accesses the long term memory to find any stored memories, or schemas, that might help this process. The more relevant memories/schemas we have, the easier the working memory can do this. Novices or beginners have less complex schemas and tend to find it difficult to make sense of new information. Experts have more complex schemas with more information and memories attached. Because of this it makes it easier for them to understand new things. Take this for an example, when we learnt to drive we got very clumsy as beginners and constantly had to think and made mistakes. At this stage we had very simple schemas related to driving. Years down the line and we can drive effortlessly because we have built up more complex schema and can process information easier. We can then deal with the various processes of driving much more effectively.
So what does this mean for the classroom? Well think back to those moments of confusion and zombie like states. How many of those times were created by us overloading students working memory? How many times did we make things a little too complex which caused them to get stuck? How many of those times did we set tasks that asked a bit too much too soon? Is there anything we can practically tweak to make the complex simple?
1. Don’t dumb it down!
One of the first things we might do is make learning easier. This actually doesn’t help at all. Instead it makes long term retention actually less likely. As Daniel T Willingham said, it’s not about making the task easier, it’s about making the thinking around it easier. All students will ultimately have to sit the same exam with the same difficult questions. Making the content simpler will only hinder them in this situation. Instead, can we make getting to the desired outcome a more broken down and scaffolded process?
2. Background knowledge.
Those with more background knowledge have more complex schema. This allows students the ability to draw upon more information, knowledge, ideas and experiences to make sense of new learning. To get novices up to the same level, try and ensure that they have the sufficient background information. This could come through richer sources of texts, encouraging more reading, spending more time sharing core information with those who need it and so on. Some classrooms give pre-texts to read before their next lesson to ensure everyone has some understanding of a topic before a teacher begins exploring it. Are you ensuring that you are helping build up background knowledge?
3. Chunk it.
The memory struggles to process numerous pieces of information at once. We can however make the processing more efficient. By chunking topics together, the mind processes larger groups of information as individual components. For example, if I asked you to remember MPGAARACBPRPMVWBMW you might find it difficult as you have 18 things to remember. If I said how about breaking it down into MP GA ARA CBP RPM VWB MW you now have 7 things to remember. If we take it one step further and bring in some background knowledge, you could chunk the letters to MPG AA RAC BP RPM VW BMW. There are still 7 things to remember but because they are linked to cars it makes the process easier. This is because many of us have large complex schema linked to this topic which we can tie our working memory to. In lessons the same feature can be used. When teaching the skeletal system in a physiology unit, grouping the bones by the classifications of long, short, flat and irregular makes learning them easier. By grouping all of the various science and technological developments into facilities, equipment and materials, it again makes learning them more manageable. Are there common groupings or ‘chunks’ that we can use when dealing with large or complex information? If so, it may benefit your students’ first encounter with them.
4. Graphic organisers.
When learning new bits of information, concepts, strategies or topics, students can fall into the trap of making copious amounts of notes. When looking back at this it can be quite overwhelming to see pages and pages of information. By using graphic organisers (or even concept maps) the working memory can quickly and efficiently manage them. So what are graphic organisers? In a various basic statement they are methods to visually organise your thinking/information. They include things like flow charts, cause and effect maps, double bubble maps, T-charts and even spider diagrams. The unique thing about them is it allows students to organise large pieces of information quickly. Many force students to compare, contrast, evaluate and make links. Looking at a well mapped out graphic organiser can really help make the complex simpler.
The use of academic language is imperative if we are to push students to higher levels of learning. You do have to beware of introducing too much too soon. When studying at A level, things like the topic of Information Processing models initially confused me when I was met with terms like ‘Stimuli Input Information Display’. Again I am not talking about dumbing down content, but in the initial phases of learning complex concepts, can we carefully select our use of language? Can we select the main terminology that is repeated over and over again and focus on them to begin with? Can we select the fundamental key terms? Can we do this first to build up background vocabulary in order for new learning to happen easier?
6. Attention grabbers.
Daniel T Willingham in his book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ talks about a situation where a teacher asked students to create a PowerPoint on a particular topic they had taught. After a few lessons in the computer suite, the teacher had noticed that there wasn’t much learnt content. Instead students had spent most of their time thinking about what animations to use. What fonts to include. What colour the background should be. If the teacher had asked the students to plan the content first, and then created the PowerPoint, the students would have had a better and more memorable learning experience. What students had done is focused on the wrong part of the process and missed the key thing, the actual learning.
7. Distractions and humour.
Some students need no excuses to get distracted. Students’ brains and specifically their working memory can easily focus on the wrong things. The amazing whizzy title on your presentation can actually lead them to think about that rather than listen to what you are saying. So what about humour? Humour is fine in the classroom but beware that if during an explanation of a complex topic, a joke can actually distract the students’ attention. Their working memory focuses on that and not the topic and successful learning is lost.
Modelling is one of the fundamental tools in a teacher’s armoury. If a concept or even a task might be quite difficult to understand, a well modelled working example can be extremely helpful. Showing the process or stages that are required helps a student finally see what is expected. The working memory can then process the steps and allow success to take place.
9. Look at it through the students eyes.
You probably won’t find this advice in many educational books, but I feel it is vital. Once you have finished planning your lesson, go back through the stages one at a time. Lessons must be challenging for long term learning to take place, but quickly evaluate and identify anything which may be too complex. If you were a student would you get it? If it is too difficult, remember Willingham’s words and make the thinking around it easier, not the task.
‘Why don’t students like school’ Daniel T. Willingham
‘Make it stick’ Brown, Roediger and McDaniel
‘Visible Learning and the Science of how we learn’ Hattie and Yates