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Developing Attention & Memory

Posted by Stephen on February 27, 2007

People have numerous tools available to assist them in their quest to pay attention and increase memory. Industrious individuals utilize everything from to-do lists and post-it notes, to the daily advancements of computer software designed to make it impossible to forget important information. However, people still need to have strong minds, and at the base of this innate need is a well-established attention and memory system.

There are a plethora of effective studies regarding tools and techniques that are available to enhance these vital skills. In Meditation of the Week: Developing attention, the Osho International Foundation (OIF) states that attention is a skill that must be developed in order to work at maximum capacity. Attention is defined as a silent alertness with no thoughts interfering. “You can develop it only by doing it; there is no other way,” says the OIF.

The OIF believes that memory works by association. In order for you to remember any new thing it must be associated with something you already know or remember. As individuals remember more, they create more “hooks” for memory associations.

Just as a person must learn to crawl before he/she can walk, a brain must learn to pay attention before it can retain information and store that information in memory. Attention can be broken down into different components. In a 1999 edition of Developmental Neuropsychology these components are described as the ability to sustain attention over time, the ability to attend to stimuli selectively, the ability to alternate or switch attention stimuli or tasks, and the ability to divide attention. There are different objects and events that stimulate the brain, however, some are ignored and others are transformed into different kinds of mental representations.

A person has the ability to select stimulus that seems to have importance to that individual at a certain time. If this ability did not exist then people would only be able to react to the most dominant stimulus presented to them. The National Institute of Mental

Health states that our behavior would be influenced solely by whatever thought, memory, or impulse was passing through our minds, and we would have no goal-directed control over our actions. Therefore, attention is a key component to students’ cognitive skills and behavior.

Effective teachers understand that attention is a fundamental psychological process necessary for students to learn. There are specific techniques and strategies that teachers find useful in getting, and sustaining, the attention of students. One basic approach is to ask the students to pay more attention. A teacher can identify students who are struggling and focus more attention on them by moving toward these individuals during the lesson.

Another strategy would be to break up the lesson into smaller segments and alternate between the various types of class activities. A teacher can take a basic lesson on vocabulary words and make it interesting and creative by using different activities. For example, the teacher asks students to write down a list of words that are posted on the board. The class then works in groups to incorporate these words into a discussion. After an established period of time the teacher can have each student create a sentence using one of the given words in its correct form and meaning. Once the correct usage of the words is established the students create a story using all of the vocabulary words from the list.

A continual flow of activities enables the students to constantly be engaged in the lesson. Planned activities and presentations help students pay attention in class. Using strategies like these increase attention and are the groundwork for increased learning and improved memory.

In September of 2003 The Institute for the Learning Sciences stated that memory “is a place where we process knowledge, dynamically changing what we know by the processing we do,” and learning is “the dynamic modification of memory…[and] human memories are in a constant state of dynamic modification.” Intelligence is created by learning and memory working together in what researchers describe as memory structures.

Memory Structures and what to do with them

In a classroom setting educators can teach by emphasizing memory structures. Memory structures are commonly broken down into three strategies. One type of example suggested by The Institute for the Learning Sciences is as follows: In this case the overall objective is to determine when the United States entered WWII. Strategy 1, “…locate the fact in memory that gives the answer.” When was Pearl Harbor attacked? The student may already know the date, but the teacher is improving memory by reinforcing current knowledge through repetition.

Strategy 2, “…locate some episode in memory then use that episode.” In this case the teacher utilizes a time line to assist students in remembering, or determining the beginning of WWII. The students then calculate the number of years between the attack of Pearl Harbor and the actual beginning of the war.

In Strategy 3 students are asked to, “…locate some ‘reference’ individual and use that individual’s [information].” Here students are asked to refer to personal experience to reinforce newly obtained knowledge. The student can relate the topic to a grandfather who was alive during WWII. The student determines how old his/her grandfather was when Pearl Harbor was attacked versus his current age. Students then calculate the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The structures that memory contains must be processing structures as well as knowledge structures.

Another approach to improving a student’s memory centers on the use of goals to create a natural and active learning environment. All people learn naturally. The Institute for the Learning Sciences support this approach with what is called, “The Learning Waterfall”, which consists of three steps that are involved in the natural learning process. These steps set the stage for learning. Experience plays a huge role in natural learning. Generalizations are formed from focusing on specific elements of experiences.

The Learning Waterfall and Natural Learning

Steps lead to Description, for example:

Adopt a Goal=Learn about things of interest

Generate a Question=Try and experience interest , may fail, generates a question

Develop an Answer=Once the question is generated then an answer is developed 

In order to create successful students the system must first be concerned with goals. Students must first acquire goals which interest them, and these goals must underlie education.

It is the responsibility of educators to create the strongest minds possible. At the base of every strong mind is an established attention and memory program. There is no learning without memory. Both of these skills need to be developed in the home and in the classroom for children to have the ability to effectively maximize the learning experience. The continued development of a student is aided by a teacher’s knowledge of attention and memory processes.

Stephen Winslow holds an MAEDS, is a teacher, and is the executive editor of Conservative Viewpoints.

Copyright 2007 by Stephen Winslow. All rights reserved.

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