8 Using knowledge of student cognition to differentiate instruction
By all accounts, learning is a complex task that requires a student to use and apply a range of cognitive skills. 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. According to the academic literature, WM is a very useful measure of a student’s capability to acquire new information.2 Most students are able to successfully respond to classroom instruction that requires them to rely on their WM to acquire new knowledge or skills. Unfortunately, some students struggle and ultimately fail to process information effectively which, in turn, negatively affects the outcome of instruction.
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. We first offer a brief definition of WM and discuss ways that students apply WM to their daily lives. 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. We highlight the interrelationship between WM and learning difficulties and disabilities among some students. 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.
What is working memory?
A student’s ability to master the content of daily instruction largely depends on his or her ability to successfully process information in WM. 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, if information that a student is trying to process overloads their WM, learning and understanding will be negatively affected.6
The term “working memory” is defined as a person’s ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information for cognitive tasks performed on a daily basis (e.g., following directions and performing mental math).7 WM is frequently described as a “mental scrapbook” that allows a person to store and manipulate information while engaging in other tasks.8 Storage of verbal and visual or spatial information is accomplished by putting it in short-term memory (a component of WM), a process that is coordinated by the so-called “central executive.” The central executive controls a student’s ability to focus attention and allows the student to use her or his WM to store and manipulate information for a relatively short amount of time (e.g., remembering someone’s lock combination).9
When learning a new concept or skill, a student must possess and be able to rely on WM. 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. 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. It is important to point out that WM capacity grows across time, especially between the ages of five and eleven. However, within any given class of students, there will be differences in student WM capacity and in classroom performance.13
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. 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. For that reason, limitations on a student’s WM capacity often are associated with academic deficits in reading, mathematics, writing, and in the area of social skills.15
Working memory in the classroom
Many classroom tasks (e.g., reading comprehension) require students to frequently use their WM and to retrieve information under conditions that include “signal interference” (e.g., retrieval of irrelevant information, overload of irrelevant cues)16 and classroom distractions.17 For example, a student’s thoughts about an after-school ball game might serve as a distraction during instruction. Furthermore, the constant demands placed on students’ WM during the school day may adversely affect their academic performance — especially those students who have WM deficits.18 If a teacher knows that students with WM difficulties need to make a greater effort to respond to daily classroom demands, they can take steps to lessen the challenges these students face — for example, by repeating directions before students are required to do the assigned tasks. The table “Three Categories of Student Difficulties” shows behaviors exhibited by students who have different instructional needs.
Students who have difficulty paying attention to specific information struggle with the encoding (i.e., initial acquisition) of information. Attention, the cognitive process that supports WM, is very important for students to make efficient use of WM in the process of learning.19 To be successful, a student must be able to move information from WM to long-term memory, where it is stored.20
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. Because the encoding of information is affected by attention, students who evidence problems such as inattention and distractibility will have problems with memory as well.22
The role of attention
Results of several recent studies show that attention significantly influences WM, particularly when students must encode information (e.g., when a student is listening to a lesson on various cloud formations). 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. 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. Furthermore, if a student cannot control his attention, interfering information will not be filtered out and learning will also be adversely affected.24
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. Anxiety over today’s history test further exacerbates an already difficult situation. 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.
Many academic tasks require a substantial amount of student attention and mental effort during the learning process. Fortunately, some tasks, including complex tasks, can become so automatic that they require little attention once learning a skill has occurred (e.g., reading, riding a bike, math facts). When a task becomes automatic, there is less demand on attention and WM capacity.26
Understanding diverse student populations
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. Recognizing that some students have problems in the area of WM is no exception. Recently, McCloskey, Perkins, and Van Divner explored the concept of learning and producing difficulties.27 Based on that work, they proposed grouping students according to three specific academic difficulties:
- students with learning difficulties only,
- students with producing difficulties, and
- students with learning and producing difficulties.
The students who have only learning problems have processing difficulties that usually affect a specific skill area, such as phonological processing skills (e.g., dyslexia). 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. They are often not identified as having a learning disability and their specific problem is only recognized through a process evaluation (e.g., pre-referral team recommends further assessment or tier two or three intervention of academic skills). Compared to their peers, gaps in learning usually are not apparent until middle school when they are required to learn more complex information and must rely on skills that are deficient (e.g., when a student with dyslexia has to read to learn science information from a textbook or visit a website to obtain information on a particular subject).
The behavior of students with producing difficulties who do not have learning problems often is misunderstood. 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. Such students know the process involved in writing; they just cannot produce a written assignment. When these students do not demonstrate a writing difficulty, teachers and parents sometimes mistakenly view them as lazy, unmotivated, or irresponsible. Students with producing problems have difficulty consistently and efficiently applying skills they have learned. They usually do things too quickly without careful thought and without proofing or editing their work. Finally, these are the students who often forget their homework, do not complete projects or assignments, and have difficulty planning and regulating their attention and study skills.
The third group of students, the students with learning and producing deficits, often are identified as having a specific learning disability. Teachers and parents usually recognize their difficulty with learning and producing an acceptable quality of work (e.g., when a student is asked to write a paragraph about a topic, he has difficulty deciding what to write and when he finally writes, it contains incomplete sentences, spelling errors, and often lacks coherence). In the table below, we summarize the problems evidenced by these three categories of students.
Three categories of student difficulties
|Student with learning difficulty||Student with producing difficulty||Student with learning and producing difficulties|
|When are difficulties identified?||Usually not identified as having a learning disability until middle school.||Often misdiagnosed as having a learning disability or as “lazy.”||Often identified in the early years as having a 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 what ways do students exhibit difficulties during daily instruction?||This student’s learning problem is directly related to a specific cognitive ability (e.g., phonological memory).||This student has difficulty planning and regulating attention, and has deficits in working memory.||This student has processing difficulties and problems regulating attention and working memory.|
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. As we’ve suggested, attention maintains information in WM, and that information is transferred from WM to long-term memory. Unlike short-term memory, long-term memory has no limitations on capacity. Given the importance of attention in regulating a student’s WM, many teachers have learned to control the type and amount of interference to which students are subjected during classroom instruction. For example, a growing number of teachers rely on explicit instruction within a structured learning environment that is free of disruptions and distractions and in which there is a predictable schedule and set of routines. This approach to instruction has been proven to be beneficial to all students. In what follows, we will present additional strategies that teachers can use to facilitate the acquisition, retention, and retrieval of knowledge and ways to differentiate instruction.
Strategies for differentiating classroom instruction
Gathercole and Alloway offer seven principles for teachers to apply to prevent an overload of a student’s WM:28
- Recognize WM problems (e.g., failure to follow directions).
- Observe the child for early warning signs of WM overload and monitor the child’s behavior by asking, “What are you going to do next?” or “Tell me what you are going to read.”
- Identify and evaluate the demands of various learning activities (e.g., amount of information to remember).
- Reduce WM loads by modifying the activities.
- Be ready to repeat information.
- Encourage the use of memory aids (e.g., posters on the wall and technology).
- Develop the child’s use of strategies for supporting memory (e.g., rehearsal and chunking information).
With these guiding principles in mind, teachers can make decisions about ways to differentiate instruction to address the diverse needs of their students. The following suggestions are supported by research on cognition.
Strategy #1: Provide short, simple, and sequential directions, one at a time.
Students can better follow directions when they have to pay attention to and remember only one instruction at a time. According to Watson and Houtz29 and Watson and Westby,30 students can benefit from written directions and/or visuals with check-off space to accompany the oral directions or procedures to be followed.
For example, an effective way to assign math problems might be to provide students with a checklist that reads:
- ____ Open your math book.
- ____ Find page 78.
- ____ Do problems 1-5.
- ____ Wait for teacher’s feedback.
- ____ Do problems 6-10.
A less effective way to give the same assignment would be to combine all of the instructions into one sentence, as in the following example:
“Open your math book to page seventy-eight and do the first ten problems.”
Strategy #2: Use visual cues and modeling to reinforce oral directions or explanations.
Visual cues and modeling can serve as “outside memory” supporting WM. According to Wood, visual information (i.e., object and actions) is stored by three different systems of visual WM, which allows students to retain information through different types of visualization.31 Classroom application of modeling and visual cues has proven especially useful.32
- Visual cues (such as pictures, class rules, or any kind of posted reminder) activate student’s prior knowledge.
- Modeling (i. e., demonstrating step-by-step how to perform a task or skill) is a very effective research-based instructional method. Several researchers describe “modeling” as the most important procedure in teaching a strategy and they also emphasize the need to “think aloud” while modeling.33 Their studies show that students benefit from observing the overt behaviors as well as the cognitive processes involved in performing a task. Deshler and colleagues recommend the use of fours phases in modeling: (1) Provide students with an advance organizer; (2) Demonstrate the overt behaviors while “thinking aloud”; (3) Enlist student participation to involve them and to check for understanding; and (4) Provide a post-organizer to review critical elements, state expectations, and to remind the students to check their progress.34
Strategy #3: Repeat information or directions or ask other students to repeat and paraphrase what you have just said.
Repetition can help students get the information they did not get the first time and paraphrasing (i.e., using different words to express the same idea) will help assure that students are able to remember the general idea you expressed.
Strategy #4: Use rehearsal, visual imagery, and coding as ways to facilitate the transfer of information from short-term memory to WM to long-term memory.35
- Rehearsal is the repetition of verbal information. 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. 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. Repetition may also involve rehearsal using multiple modalities (e.g., tactile, auditory). For example, a student might write down a spelling word several times and tap the equivalent number of letters in the word.
- Coding is the semantic elaboration of information through strategies such as acronyms. Compressing information to be learned facilitates recall.37 For example, the mnemonic PENS can help students remember the steps of a sentence-writing strategy:
- Pick a formula
- Explore words
- Note the words
- Search and check.
- The acrostic “Don’t Make Silly Booboos” can facilitate memory of the steps for long division:
- Bring it down
- These strategies make the information to remember more concrete and provide students with a way to attach meaning to the learning tasks.
- Visual imagery
- Visual imagery is the creation of visual images that help students to remember verbal information. Visual imagery improves memory because students are better able to remember pictures rather than words.38 For example, visualizing a horse, a boy, and a whale can help a student remember the characteristics of mammals for a test.
- The keyword method
- The keyword method is a mnemonic strategy using key words to include paired associates learning, is frequently used for vocabulary learning. A keyword is a concrete word (e.g., iron) that has phonological similarities with an abstract word (e.g., irony). (Terrill, Scruggs, and Mastropieri suggest steps for developing good keyword links.39) Atkinson and Raugh were among the first researchers to show the power of this method on the acquisition of vocabulary.40 The keyword method has been used by a number of researchers to facilitate student learning and retention.41 A visual image or drawing and/or a sentence that shows the definition doing something with the keyword can be added to facilitate retrieval of information. Levin, McCormick, Miller, Berry, and Presley provide the example of the Spanish word carta, which means letter. The keyword could be cart and the visual image generated could be of a shopping cart with a letter in it.42 The following example illustrates how the keyword method might help students remember important information about photosynthesis:
- Photosynthesis: a process that converts carbon dioxide into organic compounds, especially sugars, using the energy from sunlight.
- The word “photo” has phonological similarities to “photosynthesis.”
- “Photo” is a concrete word, so it becomes the keyword. The Greek word “photo” means light and photosynthesis depends on sunlight to produce sugar (and oxygen).
- To make the connection concrete, generate an image of someone taking a photograph of a plant with a related caption:
Word to be learned: photosynthesis
Strategy #5: Give only five to seven pieces of information at a time to avoid WM overload.
Keeping in mind the limited WM capacity and Miller’s “magic number seven” (minus or plus two) can be helpful when planning how much information to convey at one time. A five- to seven-word sentence, for example, is much easier to remember than a longer one. While it’s not always possible to convey intended meaning in shorter sentences, information can often be condensed. Compare the following sentences:
- Example: “Learning depends on number of rehearsal trials.” (seven words)
- Non-example: “Verbal rehearsal increases learning depending on the number of times (trials) the item was rehearsed.” (sixteen words)
Working memory is also aided when concepts or ideas are limited in number. For example, the following list includes only four facts to be remembered. As a result, it is more easily handled by working memory:
Facts we learned today 1. Energy comes from the sun. 2. This energy passes through the earth’s atmosphere. 3. This energy is changed to heat. 4. Carbon dioxide blocks the heat in the atmosphere.
Strategy #6: Break tasks into sub-tasks to address the students’ attention and WM capacity.
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. For example, instead of asking a student to answer ten questions at one time, ask the student to answer five. Then, give the student corrective feedback and assign the next five questions. Information or questions can be shown in three to five items per page to help the student to focus attention on those items.
Strategy #7: Group information into chunks to reduce potential overload of a student’s WM.
Chunks are clusters of items that are stored as a single unit, which increases the number of items that a student can recall. 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. Also consider the following numerical example:
- Example: 581-347-6297
- Non-example: 5813476297
Which one is easier to remember? Ten digits chunked into three clusters or ten digits without any pattern or clusters?
Strategy #8: Categorize information by grouping together related objects or events.
Categorization is a form of chunking information that focuses on putting information in meaningful groups. This strategy decreases student WM overload. Consider the following lists of items to remember:
List A: Items to remember
- Writing instruments
In the above example, categorizing the information facilitates remembering and learning. In the following example, by contrast, there is no categorization or order to facilitate remembering and learning:
List B: Items to remember
The following example illustrates the effectiveness of this strategy in helping students set up for a science lab:
Items for lab set-up
- laboratory equipment
- test tube
- chemical solution
- write-up materials
- colored pencils
- graph paper
- lined paper
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.
Strategy #9: Use semantic maps or networks to connect a main idea to related ideas.
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. When creating semantic networks, use connecting words and pictures (or videos) to link the main concept to the related networks. The following example shows a semantic network about voting, in which words and pictures are connected to the main idea by linking words to form complete simple sentences:
“Voting” is a popular concept and a known vocabulary word. Clustering “democracy,” “citizen,” “rights,” “membership,” “ballot,” “responsibility,” “registration,” “policy,” and “mobilize” further develop the concept and provide students with a more complete understanding of the clustered items. The relational lines use verbs to indicate whether the orbiting item infers or refers.
When creating a semantic map or network from a class discussion, unrelated items can be placed on a defined “sideline” for use in other discussions. Items that set up their own new cluster can help the constellation to grow. In the voting example, “citizen” might be a larger cluster center. Clusters can be enlarged and used to organize knowledge for classroom discussion or for writing an essay.
Strategy #10: When conveying visual information, use the spatial contiguity principle.
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 strategy helps to minimize interference and decreases the likelihood that a student with WM deficits will forget important information. Consider the following example:
This example shows two different ways of presenting the same information about the water cycle. The top example separates the important definitions from the image that shows how the water cycle works. The bottom example incorporates the spatial contiguity principle, and includes the important definitions in the illustration itself. The result is a more effective display of visual information.
Strategy #11: Make information meaningful by connecting the students’ prior experiences to the new information.
Students better remember information when it is familiar and meaningful to them. Using this strategy includes both activating students’ prior knowledge as well as discussing with students the reason for or benefit of learning the information. Consider the following class dialogue:
- What do you know about rain forests?
- It rains a lot. It is hot and humid all year around. It has lots of trees. It has lots of plants and animals. It has rivers or oceans nearby.
- Good! We live in ____________________. Do we usually have a lot of rain? Do we have rivers or oceans nearby? Do we have lots of trees? Is it hot and humid all year around here?
- [Students respond]
- How is where we live the same or different from a rain forest?
- [Students respond]
- Why do you need to learn about rain forests?
- Because rain forests produce oxygen we need for living. It gives us clean air and clean water.
- When and how can you use this 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. The teacher also facilitated discussion of some of the reasons for learning about rain forests.
Strategy #12: Provide advance organizers prior to beginning a lesson to help students more easily organize information to be learned.
Advance organizers, also called “structured overviews,” reduce the cognitive demands on students by allowing them to visualize the way various concepts relate to one another. This strategy also provides a way to gain the students’ attention before starting the lesson. Remember that motivation and anxiety can affect attention and WM. For example:
Today we will learn about blood types.
We will conduct an experiment.
We will make conclusions about mixing blood types.
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. Graphic organizers can be used at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a lesson and can be completed by the teacher and/or the student.
Strategy #14: Teach organization of text such as story structure to facilitate comprehension of narratives.44
This strategy can greatly enhance reading comprehension. It’s important to remember, however, that expository texts have different structures and are organized in many different ways (e.g., compare and contrast). They are challenging to students with WM deficits because students have to learn content knowledge at the same time they have to understand the organizational aspects of the text (e.g., cause and effect, problem and solution). Students benefit from explicit instruction of the various structural schemes of expository texts because the information to be learned can be organized and mapped, making the text more meaningful and easier to understand.45 Graphic organizers can provide students with a visual map of the text depicting textual relationships. Consider the following graphic organizer example, designed to help students understand a narrative:
Title Setting Characters Problem Attempts to solve the problem Feelings of characters during the attempts to solve the problem Solution/conclusion
Strategy #15: Use hierarchy to organize information.
Disorganized and random information is not only confusing but also difficult to remember.46 When it’s appropriate, hierarchy is a useful way to structure information to improve recall.
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. Hierarchical maps provide a high degree of structure, which facilitates learning of factual and conceptual knowledge and reduces the cognitive load required for learning new information.47
Strategy #16: Review information frequently.
Without frequent reviews, learners are likely to forget information. Students who review previously-mastered spelling words once a month are more likely to retain the knowledge of that spelling than students who never review spelling words until the end of the year.
Regular review not only helps students to better remember information, but it also allows them to connect prior knowledge to new information. The strategic integration of old and new information helps students to retrieve information from working memory.
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. This frees student attention and helps students with WM and attention problems organize and process information.48
In order to establish such an environment, follow the same schedule daily. Only change the classroom’s physical arrangement after informing students of the changes and no more than twice a semester.
Strategy #18: Divide study time into sessions.
Distributing study and practice time across multiple teaching sessions helps students to remember and retain information. For example, students who practice solving new math problems three times a week for fifteen minutes are more likely to retain the information than students who practice solving new math problems only once for thirty minutes following instruction.
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.
Strategy #20: Apply the serial position curve concept to teaching.
Learning increases near the beginning (primacy effect) and end (recency effect) of a lesson. Most interferences, such as daydreaming and student talking, occur primarily during the middle of a lesson. As a result, it’s best to teach important information during those times to improve students’ retention. Use the primacy and recency effects to enhance students’ learning and retention of information.49
One way to make effective use of this strategy is to provide new information during the first fifteen minutes of class. Spend the middle of the class period having the students practice the new skills in small groups or individually. Then spend the last fifteen minutes of class summarizing the main concepts learned during the lesson.
Creating successful learners
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 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. 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. Without understanding the nature of the problem, educators may not provide students with the most effective interventions and accommodations to support their learning and performance. Students with WM and attention difficulties are at greater risk of academic and social failure compared to their peers without such difficulties.
We urge educators and parents to carefully observe their students to identify the specific difficulties they are having in school. Interventions and accommodations need to be designed to address an individual student’s specific problem. This article suggests ways to differentiate instruction with explanations on how that technique or strategy can address the student’s difficulty with WM and attention deficits in the classroom. We offer twenty suggestions to teachers interested in making interventions and accommodations for their students. By implementing strategies such as modifying the environment and using information clustering, teachers can avoid overloading students’ working memory. Teachers who support students in regulating their attention and working memory will be rewarded with classes full of successful learners.