Memory Takes Work: Lehman’s New Faculty Seminars

Discoveries in our first three weeks of the new faculty seminar:

1. Faculty members are no more likely to do the assigned reading than are students.

2. Faculty members don’t take seminar notes unless they’re asked and reminded. 

3. Faculty members have difficulty recalling the content and activities of the previous week’s seminar if they haven’t taken notes or done the reading. 

Conclusion: Learning requires more than physical presence, and working memory becomes long-term memory if and only if practice, reinforcement, and repetition (yes, built-in redundancies) are involved. 

Given the above, how are we managing to learn about cognitive science based pedagogies, and why are faculty members returning and participating in the seminar? Following Clark Aldrich’s advice, and implementing Dan Willingham’s principles, we are varying our approaches within the seminar and giving faculty the opportunity to test these approaches on themselves.

Our strategies this past week included in-seminar reading (enough to pique interest and gain some of the key ideas of the chapter), on-the-spot partnered outlines of the reading, and board work to demonstrate our learning to each other (peer teaching works with faculty!).

Then we added a game to test Willingham’s arguments and followed up with the challenge of 10 minute readings followed by 5 minute presentations. We practiced, repeated, clarified, questioned, and then tested our recall of the material by comparing the activities with the chapter’s advice for teachers.

According to Willingham, thinking is extra work: humans problem-solve either instinctively (the familiar that needs little effort) or consciously (the unfamiliar that needs more effort). Willingham seems to equate thinking with problem-solving and suggests that humans are naturally curious; we like to solve problems, and we like to solve solvable problems that match the reward of solving to the efforts made towards solution.

How do we solve problems? Through taking in new facts and processes and integrating those with already known facts and processes to familiarize the unfamiliar. Working memory is work: memory at work is memory in formation through engagement and processing of new information. Long-term memory is more static and consists of what has been learned, practiced, and trusted to be true or stable in reference to a set of known situations. 

We tested our working and long-term memories with a few rounds of the SET game, a card game that teaches set theory by asking players to identify sets based on shape, number, color, and pattern. The number of attributes that players must keep in working memory to play the game slightly exceeds the number of attributes that are easy for most people to retain. These attributes require long-term memory of the basic information for identifying shapes, colors, numbers, patterns, and card-playing norms. 

Our discussion of working and long-term memory led us to a jigsaw-inspired round of presentations that faculty members offered for the strategies provided in the chapter. Anne Marie Marshall reminded us that Vygotsky’s Zone of Development is similar to Willingham’s social and constructivist advice. David Claman gave examples of recent long-term activities in his classes that seemed to challenge the guidelines to vary the pace of a class in order to support working memory. 

Throughout our time together, faculty members inhabited two roles, those of student and teacher. Emphasizing the critical thinking skills and experiences of the faculty as experts and appealing to the energy raised by curiosity, problem-solving, and competition that a part of student learning created a dynamic session that “walked the walk.” 

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