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Our Elusive Memory
A student is reading an assigned chapter from their Language Arts class as preparation for the next day’s lesson on adjectives. The student reads the content, eats dinner, watches some television with the family, brushes their teeth, and then goes to bed. The next day, while on the bus, the student thinks ahead to the day. The student may remember some of the content they read the night before, but not all. Why?

Working memory is that little bit of the brain that helps retain newly-received information in a sort of holding area where the brain decides whether it is worth committing valuable resources to retaining that knowledge in its long-term memory. Think of it as a proving ground for the brain. In a learner’s working memory, there’s a Hunger Games-style brawl for what is important enough to commit to long-term memory.

The Tech Solution
For an instructor who is trying to utilize technology for their classroom, what does this mean? For all of biology’s natural wonder, the human brain is very routine-based and logical in its unconscious behaviors. The human brain is hardwired for learning, but working memory has a shelf life. If knowledge isn’t reinforced during this time, then the brain will consider it non-essential and clear out that data.

In order to take advantage of this neurologic process, instructors should “chunk” critical information into easily-digestible snacks. Research shows that not only is there is a decay in the data contained in this working memory, but also the available number of memory slots in that working memory is approximately seven.  This means that when the instructor chunks out information into 5-7 key critical ideas in one digestible chunk, then they also must find a way to ensure those 5-7 pieces of information win their respective Hunger Games and are committed to long-term memory. How could an instructor manage this?

The brain needs to think of the data held in its working memory as important, otherwise it is dumped. It isn’t enough to tell the learner that the data is important. Learners all have different sets of goals and motivators, many of which are not following the “because I said so” directive of the instructor. To that end, instructors should use strategically-placed knowledge checks in their assignments. This is particularly helpful when an instructor is making use of a learning management system. A learning management system such as Converge offers the ability to create modular-based content that supports sequential learning and can be presented in a variety of formats.

Make Theory Practice
When thinking about applying a chunked strategy to a course, examine your content: is the lesson large enough to be broken out into smaller chunks? If you were to break down the lesson into smaller chunks, do they fit in a tidy manner with seven clear subtopics? If it doesn’t, then the instructor may have to take another look at the content to see where it could be broken down further. If it does fit, then the instructor should present the information and then create a knowledge check to ensure the brain holds on to the information long-term.

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Using the beginning example of the student who is preparing for class by reading an assigned section of their text, the instructor could blend the learning environment and have some content-specific knowledge checks built in. If the reading assignment is four pages long, divided into three sections, then there could be an assigned pause in reading in order to perform a knowledge check that reinforces the reading material.  

These knowledge checks do not have to take on the form of a graded assessment of any kind, but should be a quick reinforcement of the material that has just been covered. It can be a quick game, a set of reinforcing questions, or a scenario with applied application. Creativity is key. Learner brains respond to the correct stimuli, so know the audience and create knowledge checks that are appropriate for that group.

Do you have any chunking or knowledge check strategies in use in your classroom? Share them with us @edvergent and @convergelearning!

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