Let Your Students Do the Thinking: The "4P" Approach to Lesson Design
Jan 21, 2017 Lesson Planning 763 Views
Why is the traditional lecture approach to teaching so ineffective for learning? There are many reasons, including that it generally lacks engagement, most people dislike sitting in one spot for long stretches of time, and, oh yeah, it's BORING! Of course, if you've ever sat through a long lecture as a student (and who hasn't?), you already know this.
But there are also important biological reasons why lecture methodology doesn't work well. The first issue is an input problem. The most common analogy for lecture teaching is the "fire hose" analogy. Trying to take in all the information thrown at you in a lecture is like trying to drink from a fire hose that is turned on full blast. There's simply too much input, too fast. So, what can teachers intent upon improving the effectiveness of their lessons do to improve this situation?
The obvious answer is to cut down on the overload of information. The first step in this regard is to limit the amount of input time to shorter chunks (roughly five minutes for primary students, 6-8 minutes for upper elementary students, 8-10 minutes for middle school students, and 10-12 minutes for high school students).
The second step is to carefully structure and limit the amount of information in each of those chunks. I suggest one main idea and no more than three sub-points per chunk. Following these simple guidelines would give your students a much better chance of actually committing the material to memory because the amount of information is not so much that it overloads their working memory buffers.
The Importance of Processing for Learning
But input is only part of the problem. Lecture methodology also suffers from an output problem (in this case, too little).
To explain what I mean, let's first think about the steps involved in learning. The basic steps include:
(1) sensory input;
(2) a "check in" with prior knowledge;
(3) "uploading" some of the material into conscious, working memory (from the initial sensory input, from memories related to that input, or more likely, from some combination of the two); and
(4) processing that information in some way so that
(5) encoding of an initial new memory trace takes place.
That's a lot of mental work there. Now, let's think about what happens in a lecture situation where the teacher is talking ninety miles an hour for long stretches at a time. The student hears the teacher make a point (sensory input). Her brain runs a quick check of that input against what she already has stored in memory (prior knowledge). Let's say that she determines that this new information could be important because she recognizes that it is related to something she already knows, and she thinks that it might also add some new information to extend her mental map of the topic.
The steps up to this point take place at lightning speed and are mostly, if not completely, unconscious, but now the next step the student needs to undertake in order to actually decide how this new information should fit into her mental map is to pull the new information into conscious working memory, along with any memories related to this information, and process it. I'm using "process" as a very general term here, because there are many ways students can work with new material in order to make connections to prior knowledge (I'll list a few later).
But the problem with processing is that it is higher-level thinking that is effortful and takes some time. Unfortunately, time is exactly what the student doesn't have because the teacher has continued to move ahead in his lecture and is now talking about something else. The student must now make a decision: "Do I shift my attention internally and think about this previous point, or do I drop it and shift my attention back externally to the teacher to see what he's talking about now?"
Obviously, it's a no-win situation for the student. If she goes internal to think through the initial point, she could learn something about it that she might remember later, but she is going to miss the next point the teacher makes in the lecture. If she shifts her attention back to the teacher, she will miss the opportunity to process the first point.
What happens as a result is that most students settle for a compromise--note-taking. This is because they quickly learn that there's no way to think about everything the teacher's talking about, so they need to capture what they can on paper (or in their computers) so they can hopefully think about it later. Viewed this way, note-taking should not be viewed as a learning tool, but rather as evidence of the failure of traditional lecture teaching.
So What's a Teacher to Do? The "4P" Approach
If teachers still feel the need to use lecture as an input method occasionally, they need to solve both the input and output problems inherent in lecture methodology. We talked above about how chunking and limiting the amount of information per chunk can solve the input problem. Now we need to solve the output problem. The question is, how can we structure our lecture-based lessons so that students learn much more? That's easy--use the "4P" approach!
The four "P's" were talking about here are:
2. Present, and
3. Pause to
Let's break down this simple mnemonic one piece at a time. First, priming. This is a step so often left out by teachers. By "priming" here, I simply mean giving students some kind of "heads up" about what you expect them to get from each chunk of input.
If you are about to lecture for ten minutes or so, and you have (as I suggested earlier) one main point and three sub-points you would like students to take away from that chunk, the simplest form of priming would be to tell the students before you start that chunk of lecture that there is one big overall point you would like them to get, as well as three supporting sub-points. Now they know what they're listening for. You can even say, as you go along, things like, "In case you were wondering, that was the first sub-point you will need to remember." Your chances of students taking away from your lecture chunks exactly what you want them to goes way up when you do such simple priming.
Of course, there are many other ways to prime students for successful listening. You could tell them in advance that they will be asked to summarize the lecture chunk in a few minutes, which gives them a heads up to be looking for key points. Or you can give them a graphic organizer and tell them to fill it in as you go. Or you could tell them that they should be thinking about their own life experiences in connection to the topic and that they should be ready to share those experiences and opinions about the topic in a few minutes, which once again primes them for success by pointing their thinking in a certain direction.
The second "P," of course, is to present. This is where you deliver the chunk of lecture. In addition to the important time and quantity limitations we have already discussed, anything else you can do to be engaging during your lecture chunks can also go a long way to helping students focus attention on the input. Varying your voice in a variety of ways (volume, tone, even doing different voices for different characters), using a prop or costume, moving around the room as you talk, making eye contact with students, etc., can all help to maximize attention on the initial input.
The third "P," pause, is not really a step. It's just there in the mnemonic to remind you to stop talking before you get beyond their working memory limitations. I once heard about a college professor who knew that he needed to chunk his lectures but had trouble doing so. What he did was to go out and buy a simple egg timer and set it to ten minutes. When he started his lecture, he turned the timer on, and when it went off, he had students turn to each other and talk about the material he had just covered. He reported that retention of the material skyrocketed as a result of this simple strategy.
Finally, there's the fourth "P." This is the processing step, and this is where the real magic happens. What we all need to remember is that learning takes place internally. Yes, we can input as much material as we want, but for students to actually learn any of that material, they have to be given time to go internal, put that material into working memory, and do something with it (process it). There are many ways we can have students process the material we deliver in our lecture chunks. Here are just a few:
· Small group discussions
· Filling out or creating a graphic organizer of the material
· Summarizing the material
· Peer (re)teaching of the material
· Role playing or simulating a situation in the material
The only limit is your imagination. Think about the material you will be covering, and ask yourself what the most logical processing activity would be for that chunk of material.
So there you have it--a simple, four-part mnemonic ("prime, present, and pause to process") that can be used over and over to massively increase both student engagement with and retention of the material. If you are doing lecture for a whole class period, you can usually do two to four chunks of lecture with processing activities in between (depending on how involved the processing activities are). Since students can easily get burned out on a particular processing activity, I recommend that you use a good mixture of activities to keep things fresh.
And obviously, you aren't going to be doing "lecture days" all the time. There will be days when your students are doing a lot of reading as their input activity. In such situations, you should also chunk the input into segments and ask students to process what they are reading periodically. And there will be days when your students are working on projects, or writing, or testing. But for heavy "input days," this "4P" model will serve you well.