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What teachers can do
Q: What can we do to help students who struggle?
Attention is required in order to move information in volatile short-term memory to stable memory, and is therefore a critical gateway for learning. So, what can teachers do if they suspect that their students may be having difficulties with attention?
The first thing to keep in mind is that anyone can become "learning disabled" if attention networks are overextended. Therefore, simply telling someone to "pay attention" doesn't help. Imagine you're on the golf course, focusing on lining up a critical putt. Does it help to have your teammates scream, "Concentrate! Don't screw up!"? Probably not. In the same way, telling students to "pay attention, sit straight, and stop fooling around" is likely to do more harm than good. Telling students who are struggling with attention to "pay attention" only adds to their attention load, and increases the chances that they will perform poorly.
As we saw in the previous units, learning can be improved simply by eliminating sources of unnecessary stress. Teachers can accomplish this by simply striving for a more sympathetic tone of voice and approach, and by eliminating unessential stakes in learning (e.g., the "pop quiz") that serve little purpose other than to raise stress levels in students. Urging students to get sufficient rest and sleep can also help, as research has shown that sleep and rest have a beneficial effect on abilities for attention.
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Though it may sound obvious, perhaps the most direct way teachers can reduce demands on attention and short-term memory, and thereby improve student performance, is to simply reduce the memory and attention loads we demand from our students. We can get some hints as to how teachers might be able to help their students do this by taking a look at how major corporations manage their most important corporate talent.
Corporations recognize that if they required their top executives to answer phones, make appointments, do filing, track budgets, fill out forms, and so forth, the corporate machine would grind to a halt. So corporations protect their scarce "executive resources" by having executives delegate as many attention-demanding tasks to others as is practical. The executives sometimes have a small army of administrative assistants to help deal with the relatively inconsequential tasks, (top)
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and they make use of electronic devices (e.g., cell phones, computers, PDAs, calendars, and other organizers) to help the executives track their work. As a result, the top executives can devote their full attention to tasks that are most important to the corporation, and leave more routine tasks to others, tasks that may not require the same sort of attention.
Teachers can help students manage their attention by helping them offload the more routine, attention-robbing tasks to others. The students may not have access to an army of "executive assistants" (other than their parents), but teachers can nevertheless look for ways to reduce the tension load, and eliminate as many routine tasks from their list of responsibilities as is practical. Web-based calendars with alarms can be used to help students keep track of their class schedules, as well as due dates for homework or tests. Calculators can be used in situations where learning math facts is not a primary goal, and students can be allowed to use computers for spelling and grammar checking where possible. Other techniques to limit demand on attention include the use of headphones to block extraneous sounds, music to mask distractions, and FM amplification systems to isolate a teacher's voice. At the same time, care must be taken so that these executive assistants don't themselves become a burden and a source of distraction. If such tools are used judiciously, they can help students reduce their attention load, and help protect the scarce neurological resources required for learning.
You can contribute to research
Many of the tasks teachers ask students to perform place unnecessarily high demands on short-term memory and attention. Regardless of whether or not a given student has a learning disability, such extraneous demands compete for scarce resources essential for learning, and make it needlessly difficult for students to learn. Unfortunately, neuroscientists and education researchers have not been able to develop a magic bag of tricks similar to the Treviso algorithm (see sidebar and video on the left) to solve such problems. Therefore, there is a need for professional educators to help advance this research.
The next time you develop a new lesson plan or look at new approaches to teaching, you may want to examine these approaches for potential working memory and attention bottlenecks, and think about whether you can devise alternative approaches that minimize short-term memory and attention demands. You can then use your classroom as a laboratory to test your improvements: Does this new approach lead to improvements in student performance?
Only through the active involvement of professional educators such as yourself can neuroscience help bring about new approaches to instruction that will result in advancements that are practical for the classroom.
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