Saturday, May 30, 2020

Brain Salad Surgery - it will work for you, it works for me (Emerson Lake and Palmer)

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

I loved reading this summary detailing a simple model for learning and retaining information (even though that second part's kind of a dirty concept these days - which are more about the soft skills of thinking, problem solving etc), but still - this model works for me!

Six Phases of Learning

Become interested. Learning begins with signals we receive from our environment via our sensory register. Scientists estimate that our brains receive roughly 11 million bits of information per second but can only process about 120 bits of information per second (Levitin, 2015). We filter all those stimuli down to a pinhole of salient information by focusing first on stimuli freighted with emotions, followed by novel or interesting stimuli (Medina, 2008). Basically, if students are to learn anything, they must first become interested in it.

Commit to learning. When we become interested in something, it enters our immediate memory, where it remains for about 30 seconds before we either ignore it or move it to the next stage of information processing. Our brains must assess whether what's in immediate memory demands further attention—if it has value, meaning, or potential reward (Sousa, 2016). For learning to occur, students must commit to learning the information or material we present to them, which they're more apt to learn if they see value in what they're learning and believe they're capable of learning it.

Focus on new learning. Once we commit to learning, we begin to process what we're learning in our working memory, which is composed of a "visuospatial sketchpad" for visual information, a "phonological loop" for written and spoken language, and a "central executive" that coordinates our visual and verbal processing and retrieves prior knowledge (Baddeley & Logie, 1999). Not coincidentally, we absorb learning more readily when we receive it both verbally and visually, engaging both "sides" of our working memory. 

Make sense of learning. Our working memories have limitations, including "timing out" after 5 to 20 minutes of focused attention (Medina, 2008). On top of that, we can only juggle a few bits of information at a time. Given these limitations, it's important to chunk instruction into brief (5- to 10-minute) segments that give students time to make sense of new content by thinking about it, categorizing it, and connecting it to prior learning.

Practice and reflect. At this point, there's only one way to move learning into so-called long-term memory: repetition, which causes a substance called myelin to grow around newly formed neural pathways, helping them fire together to automate a new skill or mental connection (Bengtsson et al., 2005). The best form of repetition is distributed practice—sessions spread over days or weeks—versus information crammed together in an intensive massed practice session. In addition, quizzing ourselves on new learning (self-evaluation) and straining to recall new learning (retrieval practice) supports long-term memory better than common (but largely ineffective) strategies like re-reading, highlighting text, or writing summaries (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

Extend and apply. Long-term memory consists of two different functions: storage and retrieval. This explains why we sometimes must "jog" our memory: we've stored information, yet have too few hooks to retrieve it. Cognitive science shows that the more richly we encode new learning—that is, the more associations or connections (including personal ones) we make to it—the easier it for us to retrieve (Dunlosky et al., 2013). So to both store and retrieve learning, students need opportunities to extend and apply their learning through novel and real-world applications, such as using mathematical formulas to solve complex real-world problems, comparing history to current events, or making personal connections to literary works.

As I was reading these six I was thinking of my routines when meeting someone for the first time: a parent; a new student.

This is exactly the process I follow. 

I'm interested in the name, and because I want to know more about the person I concentrate. I aim to associate the name with something - the same name in a movie or a book or a song usually, if it's a difficult, or exotic name I ask for the spelling or repeat the pronunciation a few times to get the feel of it and lodge the name more firmly into my memory banks via a phonetic spelling. The final part of this process is to do what novels and movies do at their beginning, and have situations where the name is repeated multiple times.

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