Lesson 5 of 7
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Practical things to try

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So when it comes to sleep, there are some specific things that educators should be talking to students about. Now we should help the students to be more mindful about sleep patterns. So, note when you go to sleep, when you get up, how you feel when you go to sleep, how you feel when you get up, one of the things you can do is keep a sleep journal, now what you do with a sleep journal essentially is jot down after a night of sleep how are you feeling, what time you went to bed, what time you got up, and then at the end of the day, go back and look at that entry, and then jot down how the day went. And pretty soon what students start to see is that when they don’t get much sleep, the days don’t go well and when they get more sleep, the days do go well, but they don’t catch that unless we teach it to them.

There’s a NASA study that shows that there’s a 34% increase in cognitive functioning three hours after a test was done, following a nap, this was done with NASA and the United States with astronauts, showing that just a short nap, 27 minute nap, helps later in the day for cognitive functioning. So when we think about big assignments that are due and different ways to prepare for tests, students can be taught or explained to them that it’s important to get sleep.

Now, faculty can also do some things to help students get some sleep. So when you make assignments, we know on big assignments that students are going to tend to wait till the last minute, we do it too, so it’s going to happen. Think about that for a minute. If you have a big assignment, it’s going to take students a long chunk of time and you make the assignment due at nine o’clock on a Monday morning, the odds are they’re going to stay up all Sunday night studying, or writing, getting ready for whatever it is that they’re doing. If it’s a big exam or a paper that’s due. Now exam, of course, it’s going to be there, but the paper is the more important one right now. If you do that that means the students are going to be exhausted when they hand the paper in and they’re going to be in a sleep debt that will last pretty much the whole week. If you make the paper due Friday at noon, they’re going to stay up Thursday night and do it. If you make it due Saturday, they’ll stay up Friday night. So think about when your assignments are due and how much sleep your students will get.

My friend Howard Aldridge at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill did a quick little study on this. He used to have his papers due at nine o’clock in the morning, and he found that 74% of the students handed them in after midnight, by submitting them through a course management system. He changed his assignment due to being 9:00 PM the night before the exam with a 12 hour extension, all you had to do was ask for it, which essentially meant the students could have handed it in the morning if they wanted. And in that case, only 15% of the students handed their papers in after midnight. So, students were actually getting some sleep. So, there’s many things you can do both to inform students about sleep, but also restructuring your classes.

  • Importance of sleep. One activity would be looking at assignment deadlines and recognise that some students will wait until the last minute to do the work.  This will impact sleep.  For example, I know of a faculty member teaching a class at 9 am Monday and Wednesday.  He used to have assignments due just prior to class on Monday.  In looking at his course management shell he noted most students did the work late at night the evening before the morning deadline with most students turning in their work between midnight and 8 am.  He then changed his deadline to 8 pm the night prior to the class, but students could request a 12-hour extension if they wish.  This means they could have an 8 am deadline if they requested it.  Only a few students made the request, with a vast majority turning in their homework before 8 pm the night prior. Although he couldn’t guarantee students were sleeping, he knew they were not up late at night doing his assignment.  
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The next area is retrieval practice. There’s probably no better area to help your students to learn than retrieval practice. The research is consistent and there’s a ton of it. The more information that’s retrieved the easier it will be to retrieve it in the future, the more often it’s retrieved. So this is the areas called long-term potentiation. The brain’s actually set up in a really interesting way. If you do something, the brain interprets that that’s an important thing. So they’ll look to see if you do it again. If you do it again and again, we’re actually set up at the neuron level to make it easier and easier to happen. The pathway of nerves that fires that helps me to tie my shoes, fires more easily than hand motions for something else when it comes to tying shoes. So anything we do, the more frequently we do it, the easier it becomes. And that’s true for retrieving information from memory. So if you want to be able to retrieve from memory, you have to keep practicing at it.

Now the other thing is that the more often you do this, and practicing it, the longer it will last there as a memory. There are things that you did in childhood that you can still remember and you can still think of clearly because you did it a lot in childhood. So students should be taught this whole practice. To understand really well that going over something multiple times helps you to be better at it. The reason this is really important is that students will get bored at these things and think, “Nah. I don’t want to do it anymore.” So you want to explain to your students, this may seem complex at first, but the way it’s going to become easier is for you to practice.

A good example of retrieval practice is reading. As students read, help them to understand that they should stop periodically and summarise in their own head what they’ve just read. The more frequently they stop and summarise, stop and summarise, the easier it will be for the information to get out. Also important to answer those questions at the end of a chapter. Making flashcards, quizzing friends, all of these are areas that will practice at pulling information out of their long-term memory. And the more often it gets pulled out, the easier it becomes.

Probably the best way to practice retrieving information is to teach something. I bet most of you really first understood your topic after teaching it for that first time. I know I did. So we tell our students very frequently, practice teaching, because teaching will help you. If you’ve got a friend or a relative, teach it to them. If you don’t have a friend or relative around, teach it to your dog or your cat, by the way, cats will learn it faster, dogs will pay more attention. And if you don’t have cats or dogs or family, teach it to the sofa. It doesn’t matter. The process of teaching is pulling information out and getting it out there.

And finally explain to your students that this is the value of group work. Group work’s not important or valuable just because it happens. It has some research basis behind it of why it’s important. When you’re in a group conversation, talking about a topic, you’re bringing your ideas out, and the more frequently you bring them out, the more solid they become. So group work actually helps you to solidify your thoughts. There’s so much good work out there on the web about retrieval practice, and best thing you can do is read it and practice it. Well, that’s kind of ironic. We need to practice at retrieval practice.

  1. Retrieval practice. Another activity to try is to embed retrieval practice questions in the opening or closing minutes of class. This is easy to do and makes good use of time, and what’s more, the more often you do it, the better the impact on students. James M. Lang’s course ‘Small Teaching: Retrieval‘ has several activities that you can use to embed retrieval practice in your classrooms, whether online or face to face. 
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Now when it comes to chunking and patterning, there’s lots you can do to help the students. Number one, again, talk to your students about how to chunk information, this is something they’re not used to, and when we talk about chunking information, taking pieces of information that logically go together and show the students how they go together. We also can help students to think about their studying with respect to chunking, if they study certain blocks of material together and don’t take breaks until they finish that block of material, it helps them to chunk it.

Now a good example of chunking is if you’re learning different researchers in a certain field, so for instance I teach psychology, and if I’m teaching my students about cognitive psychologist, Gestalt psychologist, and behavioural psychologist, if I put Gestalt psychologist together, and show the students how their work intertwines, and then I show the behavioural psychologists and how their work intertwines, the students can learn how to chunk those pieces of information, and that will help them.

And similarly, we can teach students about patterns. We can teach them about similarity and proximity and continuity, these are all patterns you can find in literature, and we’ll have easy references for you to look at. But students don’t find these patterns unless you point them out to them. Now, students will often try to memorise individual pieces of information, and that’s particularly why it’s important for us to show students these patterns, we can help them find these patterns.

Now as you teach your students to look for patterns, you’ll see these all over the place, so a good example might be proximity. A proximity essentially is, the things that tend to occur close in time or in space will be seen as going together, it’s a pattern we see all the time. If I walk into a room and somebody walks in just seconds afterwards, people think we’re together even if we’re not because of the close proximity in time. Close proximity in space, is when I’m showing examples on the board of things, if I tend to write something on the board, a dry erase board, and I write something else near it, the brain will put those things together. So proximity is a pattern that will pull things together, either in time or space, and that’s why you have to be careful to make sure to help the students to see they go together, and if they don’t go together, keep them separated.

It’s important overall for students to understand the difference between how individuals process information as novices versus experts, and you can show them this as well. An expert will learn to look for patterns, novices don’t look for patterns, when they’re reading, they’re not looking for patterns. Teach them about looking for patterns. It’s much like a figure ground concept, and this is part of a Gestalt psychology issue. Everything you look at in your environment, there’s a figure that you’re really looking at, and then everything else is kind of background. Experts can find that figure, students struggle with it, so you can show them. So as a student go through your course, help them to see where the patterns are and help them to see how to chunk the information.

One last activity I could do would be based on chunking. I can show an activity I use in my class where I show students that I can give them letters and most students can recall only about 6 or 7 letters in a recall test.  I can chunk letters and run the recall test again and in this case, students can easily recall 20 – 25 letters.  It is all about how they are presented.  Chunking can quickly change how students study and the success of learning.


How might you apply one of these activities, what issues might you encounter and how would you overcome them?

Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.