The Serial Position Curve: Why active breaks matter in class

The Serial Position Curve: Why active breaks matter in class

Research shows that humans remember more of the content you present first and last in a learning session (Serial Position Curve). When you lecture for an hour and never take a break, your brilliant message is reduced to what you say first and what you say last. Most of us have heard the phrase about presentations: say what you will say, say it, and then say what you just said. Let’s focus on this concept and conjunction with the Serial Position Curve.

So how can you play with the temporal framework to increase student learning?

1. Give your soapbox a rest. Every time you stop, the Serial Position Curve stops. If you stop several times during a class period, you suddenly have way more first and last comments.
2.  Create active breaks. When you do take a break from speaking to your students, ask them to process the information in some way. This holds the information in their working memory for longer. Learning is moving information from your working memory to your long-term memory…but this takes practice. You can help your students practice by providing cues, like little active moments of writing or peer-connecting.
3. Modular-ize the content. A module is shorter than a unit. If you circle around a smaller subset of learning objectives, ie a module, you can have lots of first and last comments about the same content. This promotes memory not only due to the Serial Position Curve, but also due to the rehearsal effect (repetition does work).

References on the Serial Position Curve

Azizian, A., & Polich, J. (2007). Evidence for attentional gradient in the serial position memory curve from event-related potentials. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience19(12), 2071-2081. Retrieved from
Glanzer, M., & Cunitz, A. R. (1966). Two storage mechanisms in free recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5(4), 351-360. Retrieved from
Talmi, D., Grady, C. L., Goshen-Gottstein, Y., & Moscovitch, M. (2005). Neuroimaging the Serial Position Curve A Test of Single-Store Versus Dual-Store Models. Psychological Science16(9), 716-723.Retrieved from

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