examinations of attention and memory

In this spring’s group of exams, several students in grades 9-12 referred to plays as novels, or vice versa.  While this mis-naming amused or frustrated some teachers, I find it a valuable, and perhaps small, pedagogical puzzle.  I wonder what we learn from such instances–about the students, about ourselves as teachers and about the learning environment that we guide.

A recent article about memory athletes helps me consider these questions.  In the article called “Remembering, as a Sport,”  psychologist Henry Roedigger “found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us . . . is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention” (New York Times 20 May 2014: D4).

For now, I am thinking that the students’ attention over time has not focused on this difference in names.  I also believe that the exam experience, as it currently exists, does not place value on such distinctions that is commensurate with the adults’ degree of consternation.

This is a fun puzzle.  Do we care that the students’ exams refer to The Tempest or Macbeth as a novel?  If so, how much?  And if so, why is the mistake lost on the tenth grade boy or girl?  Keep in mind, that most students accurately label the books they discuss in their essays.  Teachers sometimes punish themselves and students and the learning environment by spending inordinate energy on the things that did not work in some cases.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “examinations of attention and memory

  1. This reflection on nomenclature is an intriguing one. While “getting the right word” can be valuable in some situations – such as a loved one’s name — in others, it can certainly lead to creative opportunity and expression. Formal school can too easily demand we all focus tediously on one right answer instead of a dozen fascinating ones.
    Regarding memory athletes, I refer the author to “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” by Joshua Foer. It is a wonderfully readable book about memory, memory competitions, and myriad aspects of remembering and the brain. I would happily loan it out, but, yes, I cannot recall where I…….

  2. Thank you for the recommendation and the observation about creative opportunities. If I remember right, which does not always happen, the NYT article may have mentioned the Moonwalking book. Some time in the last twenty-four hours I have run across this title with enough attention that it has remained in my mind.

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