Applying Memory Principles in Your Teaching
How quickly do we forget?
Herman Ebinghaus researched the ‘forgetting curve’. He claims that after one hour of learning something new we forget 50% of it. After 9 hours we forget 60% and after one month we forget 80%. The fact that we can forget things so quickly should reinforce the idea that we, as language teachers, have to encourage students to revise out of class time and that we should also spend some class time revising. Some teachers believe that each lesson should start with a revision task of some aspects of the previous class. This could be a simple vocabulary game or you could even ask students to look back at their notes and give a summary of what they learnt in the last lesson.
How To Improve Our Memory
Prior knowledge is the cornerstone for building new understanding. Find out how much students already know about a subject and if they have gaps in their understanding, provide either additional teaching or suggest where they can locate appropriate materials to get them up to speed.
Given that the brain processes meaning before detail, provide students a context for learning. Help them find meaningful ways to remember and group ideas. Provide a course structure that is organized around “core concepts” so that it will support subsequent learning.
Keep in mind working memory is limited due to capacity and duration. Do not overload students’ with information because if the mental load exceeds the limits of working memory, learning is hindered. For example, presenting information in a diagram rather than a text format may reduce the load on working memory. With a diagram, a student may not have to search and make inferences since a diagram can make relations between elements explicit and as such, students do not have to process information sequentially but can instead process simultaneously.
Students need time and practice in order to process working memory into long-term memory. In your classes give students opportunities to go beyond just listening and instead have them practice and apply information. It takes time and effort to learn so be sure to coach and guide students on the amount of time needed to devote to learning.
Repetition is needed to process information into long-term memories. You need to repeat information and you need to be sure to repeat in a single class period. The timing of the repetition makes a difference so do not delay it. Some contend that it takes repeating something four times in a ninety minute period for it to be processed. Provide opportunities for students to repeat information inside and outside of the classroom.
How can we make things more memorable?
According to research (the Von Restorff effect) we are more likely to remember something that is surprising or out of the ordinary. We all know that when things are a bit bizarre or weird we tend to remember them. Try to think of ways to make vocabulary more memorable. Pictures may help your visual learners or getting students to mime or do role-plays may help new language ‘stick’ for others. If you ask students at the end of term how much they can remember about the course you’ll probably be surprised. Rather than remembering your excellent lesson on the present perfect which took you hours to prepare, they’ll probably remember the class when you brought in a photo of your partner, made a sandwich in the class or when the TV blew up!
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