The Best Way to Present New Information

Just like a computer, a human brain needs time to process new information

By Scott Sterling

Stop me if you’ve seen this scenario before:

  1. Teacher presents new information with a lecture or video and asks students to take notes.
  2. Teacher pauses every so often to ask questions in a half-hearted attempt at formative assessment; students desperately try not to be chosen.
  3. Obligatory homework assignment is given with about five minutes to go.
  4. Students leave without the slightest idea of what happened during class and how they are supposed to complete their homework.

 

Unfortunately, this is how most of us spent our school careers. Even more unfortunately, too many current students are experiencing the same cycle.

Although we want students to eventually be engaging in cognitively complex tasks that require critical thinking skills and other higher-order processes, no one can get there without establishing a foundation in the new material. If new information is not presented correctly, everything else falls apart.

That’s the focus of the new book, Processing New Information: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Engage with Content, by Tzeporaw Sahadeo-Turner and Robert Marzano. It’s filled with specific strategies and tips for maximizing explicit instruction.

A particular takeaway is that teachers should afford their students multiple ways to interact and process new information while it’s still being presented. This not only aids the brain in moving the knowledge from short-term to long-term memory, but it also gives the teacher an opportunity for differentiation and multi-modal learning.

In a generalized sense, the authors would rather the above scenario look more like this:

  1. Students preview new information and the teacher presents the first critical chunk.
  2. Students undertake a task that affords them an opportunity to process the chunk with a partner or group (group or partner tasks enhance the odds of processing, as opposed to working alone).
  3. The teacher presents the next chunk, preferably in a different format than the first chunk (video instead of lecture, or vice versa).
  4. Students are given another group or partner task.
  5. The cycle is repeated until all chunks are presented.
  6. As a summarization activity, students engage in a task in which they must connect new information to their prior knowledge.

 

This process fits into many of the pedagogical models that are now accepted as best practice. Responsibility for the new information is gradually released to students through the slow escalation of each processing task. Scaffolding and modeling pave the way for that escalation to occur.

Informal formative assessment strategies are key; otherwise, you don’t know when to move on to the next chunk. If you move too quickly, the scaffolding will fail, as will the acquisition of new information.

One interesting implication of this process is in the flipped learning model, where the student acquires new knowledge by watching a video, listening to a podcast, or taking in some other presentation at home. The student then brings that new knowledge to school to work on some a collaborative task with classmates.

Although the model does some things right (focusing on group or partner work; engaging in a higher-order processing activity), it still falls short when it comes to chunking information and giving students periodic processing tasks. Practitioners of the flipped classroom would be wise to implement “knowledge checks” into the background materials that students consume at home. Even at-home formative assessment, like asking students to post thoughts and ideas on a message board while they watch the presentation, could go a long way toward improving the processing of the new information.

You may still wonder: What are these processing tasks that occur after each chunk? How do I chunk the information in the first place? Processing New Information is full of specific strategies and processing tasks that you can use to fill out the method, and it’s now available at the Learning Sciences International bookstore.

We believe that the most important thing a teacher or leader can do is to fuel each student’s passion for learning. When this is achieved, a lifetime of accomplishment becomes possible for that learner. Through partnerships with schools and districts throughout the country, we help educators and leadership transform each classroom into a powerful learning environment that prepares students for lasting success in school, the global workplace, and beyond. Our vision for the future is big and bright, and we love helping schools get there. Learn more about Learning Sciences International.

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