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LEARN NC is evaluating its role in the current online education environment as it relates directly to the mission of UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education (UNC-CH SOE). By all accounts, learning is a complex task that requires a student to use and apply a range of cognitive skills. In this article, we examine the relationship between student learning and the cognitive processes required to acquire new knowledge with a specific focus on WM and attention.
A student’s ability to master the content of daily instruction largely depends on his or her ability to successfully process information in WM. Research has shown that a student’s WM capacity is a good predictor of his or her ability to accurately retrieve information, which is important because precise retrieval of acquired information is needed for learning to occur.14 Most teachers can attest to the fact that some students have WM deficits, which results in their being slower and less accurate in processing classroom instruction in class. For the purpose of our discussion, we will refer to attention as the cognitive process that allows WM to hold information when people perform cognitive tasks, and that regulates their behavior according to the demands of a particular task.21 For example, learning complex, multi-component skills, such as reading, depends on the student’s ability to control the attention and the mental effort required to learn a new skill. In sum, the inability to regulate attention is directly related to student academic performance.25 Assume for a moment that a student named Dan comes to school tired and without breakfast. Many academic tasks require a substantial amount of student attention and mental effort during the learning process.
Because the composition of today’s classroom is rapidly changing, understanding the needs of an increasingly more diverse population of students’ has become essential to effective instruction.
The behavior of students with producing difficulties who do not have learning problems often is misunderstood. The third group of students, the students with learning and producing deficits, often are identified as having a specific learning disability.
What are some signs of the difficulty?Takes a long time to produce work because of learning difficulties but the student can slowly produce the work.Shows acquisition of knowledge and acts as if they did not learn the skill.
Does not monitor quality of work or the effectiveness of the strategy.Has problems learning information and producing work correctly. In recognizing the link between attention, WM, and student learning, teachers should consider how to deliver instruction that does not overload a student’s WM capacity.
With these guiding principles in mind, teachers can make decisions about ways to differentiate instruction to address the diverse needs of their students. Students can better follow directions when they have to pay attention to and remember only one instruction at a time. Visual cues (such as pictures, class rules, or any kind of posted reminder) activate student’s prior knowledge. Strategy #3: Repeat information or directions or ask other students to repeat and paraphrase what you have just said. These strategies make the information to remember more concrete and provide students with a way to attach meaning to the learning tasks. Visual imagery is the creation of visual images that help students to remember verbal information. The keyword method is a mnemonic strategy using key words to include paired associates learning, is frequently used for vocabulary learning.
Photosynthesis: a process that converts carbon dioxide into organic compounds, especially sugars, using the energy from sunlight. To make the connection concrete, generate an image of someone taking a photograph of a plant with a related caption: A good photo needs sunlight.
This does not mean “watering down” the curriculum; the teacher simply separates an assignment into various parts so that the student can complete one part at a time. Chunks are clusters of items that are stored as a single unit, which increases the number of items that a student can recall. Categorization is a form of chunking information that focuses on putting information in meaningful groups.
Eliminating the categories into which the items are grouped would result in a jumbled list, which would be far more likely to overload a student’s working memory. Clusters or clustering is an effective way to interconnect what the student already knows with something new and to delineate what is familiar versus unfamiliar, related versus unrelated, superior versus subordinate.
The spatial contiguity principle explains that visual displays of information are more effective when text descriptions are integrated into an image, rather than presented separately.
This example shows two different ways of presenting the same information about the water cycle. Strategy #11: Make information meaningful by connecting the students’ prior experiences to the new information. When people want to clear the rain forest for development or logging, we can argue that it will affect clean air and oxygen. In this example, the teacher activated the students’ prior knowledge by having them compare the conditions in a rain forest with the local weather and geography. Strategy #12: Provide advance organizers prior to beginning a lesson to help students more easily organize information to be learned.
Strategy #13: Present information using graphic organizers to facilitate information storage and, consequently, learning. Graphic organizers allow students to arrange events, details, facts, and other information in ways that makes it easier to remember.



Hierarchical organization of information requires less mental effort from learners, compared to maps that have low structure in which information is not obvious to the learner. Regular review not only helps students to better remember information, but it also allows them to connect prior knowledge to new information. Strategy #17: Implement teaching routines and provide a structured and consistent environment.
When students have a structured and reliable environment in which to learn, they know what to expect and do not have to worry about remembering behaviors and routines. Distributing study and practice time across multiple teaching sessions helps students to remember and retain information.
Strategy #19: Have students practice the new skills in the same context in which they will be assessed. For example, if the assessment will be a multiple choice test, give students practice questions in a multiple-choice format.
Learning increases near the beginning (primacy effect) and end (recency effect) of a lesson. One way to make effective use of this strategy is to provide new information during the first fifteen minutes of class. In this article, we discussed the underlying causes of the problems exhibited by those students who have producing difficulties, learning difficulties, and difficulties with both learning and producing.
We urge educators and parents to carefully observe their students to identify the specific difficulties they are having in school.
Watch the archived session to learn more strategies for working with students with learning difficulties.
Search LEARN NC for more resources on attention, cognition, differentiated instruction, learning disabilities, teaching methods, and working memory. LEARN NC, a program of the UNC School of Education, finds the most innovative and successful practices in K-12 education and makes them available to the teachers and students of North Carolina - and the world. As online education increasingly gains in popularity and availability, the debate about its merits in relation to face-to-face (F2F) education are constantly being debated. Course Preparation – The online course took 35 hours of prep time compared to three for the traditional equivalent.
Teaching – Total teaching time for the two courses was 72 hours for the online version versus 27 for F2F.
Office Hours – Each type of course required significant office hours, but there was a larger commitment for the online class, 44 vs. Final Tasks – End of course administrative tasks required to close out a course were only required in the online class (three hours vs.
Overall there is a significantly larger amount of time spent with each student by an online instructor delivering the same content than by a faculty member in a traditional class. Course Preparation – Focusing more on the design of a course and being pushed to implement innovative teaching technologies and methodologies yields learning benefits (Nagel, 2010). Instruction time – There is a direct correlation between instructional time and student achievement. Individual Attention – The Center for Public Education recommends that students receive more individualized attention as a means of boosting achievement. Teaching online may be beneficial for students and may provide some benefits for the instructor, such as added flexibility in their schedule, or the freedom to work from a particular location, but there is also a very real possibility that the added pressures to create and deliver a course online could be detrimental to faculty health or morale.
The debate is still open regarding whether online education as a whole provides better, worse, or the same educational benefits as a traditional education.
A student’s ability to retain information while performing concurrent processing, often referred to as working memory (WM), is critical to the acquisition of increasingly more complex knowledge and skills.1 Not surprisingly, WM is often linked to successful learning and student academic achievement.
We first offer a brief definition of WM and discuss ways that students apply WM to their daily lives. This requires students to move information from short-term memory to long-term memory, where it is stored indefinitely.5 Most students are able to do so successfully.
However, WM is a system that has a relativity limited capacity,10 since it depends on short-term memory to store verbal or visual-spatial information.11 Experts assert that we can only hold about seven items at one time in our short-term memory.
These are the students who have problems determining the most relevant information and screening and “blocking out” irrelevant information, a problem that diminishes their WM capacity. Attention controls the amount of time a student needs to maintain information in WM, especially in visual WM.23 Many factors influence student attention, such as motivation, anxiety, and fatigue. Although these students struggle with learning certain skills, they usually are able to produce work that is of acceptable quality, because they do not have problems planning and regulating their attention or study skills. For example, if a student shows difficulties in writing, she is identified as having a learning disability when the problem is a producing disability and not a learning disability. Verbal rehearsal results in some learning but probably is the weakest of the three strategies for encoding information.36 Verbal rehearsal can improve a student’s short-term memory if there is limited interference and a relatively small number of items to remember. Grouping or chunking information can be accomplished by organizing visual or verbal information according to specific categories.43 For example, students could chunk the wars the United States participated in during the 1900s according to national and international wars.
This strategy also provides a way to gain the students’ attention before starting the lesson.


Only change the classroom’s physical arrangement after informing students of the changes and no more than twice a semester.
We specifically focused on working memory and attention as specific cognitive skills required for learning and producing work and the daily classroom challenges faced by students with problems in these areas. Interventions and accommodations need to be designed to address an individual student’s specific problem. This is the largest percentage difference in time between the two modes of education and the one which has the potential to yield the greatest benefits to students. Are these per-student time commitments simply a drain on the instructor or are there hidden benefits to the students that are attributable to the increase in instructor attention?
A teacher’s time is not an infinite resource and many of educators have families and other responsibilities that could compete with the additional time necessary to prepare and deliver a quality online course. Certainly there are many factors which complicate making a direct comparison between the hours spent teaching online vs. Then, based on the premise that learning requires both memory3 and attention,4 we discuss the role of WM and attention in classroom learning and in the acquisition of new knowledge. The “magic number seven” (plus or minus two) identified by Miller in 195412 corresponds to a person’s memory span and the relatively limited amount of information a person can hold in memory while working on various cognitive tasks. If, for any reason, a students’ attention is disturbed, his or her opportunity to learn is diminished because attention is essential to maintain information in WM.
Even though Dan studied for the test, he receives a failing grade because of his decreased ability to focus enough attention on the test to answer the questions correctly. In the table below, we summarize the problems evidenced by these three categories of students. Examples include rehearsing the multiplication tables (9 x 2 = 18), rehearsing a poem, rehearsing the steps of a strategy, and rehearsing the meaning of a word.
We illustrated the distress experienced by students with WM and attention deficits in the classroom to explain those students’ need for specific supports in order to succeed.
It is unlikely that even the least tech-savvy instructor uses all of that extra time just figuring out how to port their materials online. While this may seem cumbersome, individual attention yields better learning, engagement, and retention. This seemingly subtle difference in availability on the part of the instructor could lead to more time spent with individual students and consequently, to better learning.
Though the smallest additional time commitment, this is the area most likely to cause instructor burn out and frustration because it represents additional administrative tasks that are required on top of an already substantial time commitment. While this may create more work for the instructor, it also benefits students by allowing the teacher to help individually guide their learning. These competing draws on faculty attention, as well as the knowledge that it is easier to teach F2f courses, can become a drain on instructors. While we are moving away from a focus on publishing, we know it’s important that educators have access to these kinds of resources.
We highlight the interrelationship between WM and learning difficulties and disabilities among some students. It is important to point out that WM capacity grows across time, especially between the ages of five and eleven. Innovation and exploration of new resources is happening in that time, to some extent, and students will benefit directly from the greater focus that faculty give to preparing online courses.
In the traditional classroom the primary mode of teaching is mass instruction, which contrasts sharply when compared to the more individualized approach used in many online courses.
Add to that the fact that some teachers may become energized by the interpersonal interactions of a traditional classroom more-so than the mediated, asynchronous ones available online, and the medium itself may contribute to teacher burnout. After providing an understanding of the role of WM and attention in learning, we offer research-based strategies for differentiating instruction and addressing the diverse needs of students in an inclusive classroom. Clusters can be enlarged and used to organize knowledge for classroom discussion or for writing an essay. That said, we’re directing our resources into our newest efforts, so we won’t be adding to the archive or updating its contents. By implementing strategies such as modifying the environment and using information clustering, teachers can avoid overloading students’ working memory. This means that as the North Carolina Standard Course of Study changes in the future, we won’t be re-aligning resources. Our full-text and tag searches should make it possible for you to find exactly what you need, regardless of standards alignment. Images and other media may be licensed separately; see captions for more information and read the fine print.



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