Don't Ask Me to Remember It All!

Have you ever been at a church potluck and overheard a conversation about that day’s sermon? Chances are someone remembers a point you enjoyed at the time but had completely forgotten. Then you joined in with your favorite sermon highlight.

Since all brains don’t work alike, we need one another. And conversation, and, most of all, potlucks! Here’s a big term to chew on at your next social gathering: primacy-recency effect.

Can you guess what the phrase means? Look at the middle word: “recency.” Do you see a form of “recent”? Any guesses now?

When you are learning, the amount of information retained depends primarily on when it is presented during the class time. At certain time intervals during the learning, you will remember more than at other intervals.

You will remember best what you learned first (Prime Time 1). Or learned first = remembered best.

You will remember second best what you learned last (Prime Time 2). Or what is learned last = remembered second best.

  • And, you guessed it. Your brain will remember least what came just past the middle, often called “downtime,” probably because your brain has temporarily shut down!
  • The first (new) information gets your attention and goes to the semantic (memory) portion of your brain.
  • The middle information tends to exceed the capacity of the working memory and can get lost.

As the learning concludes, items in your working memory are sorted or “chunked” to allow for additional processing of the last few items. These will probably be held in working memory—but might decay unless further rehearsed (Gazzaniga, et al., 2002; Terry, 2005).

Here are some considerations for using the primacy-recency effect in the Sabbath School class:

  • After getting the members’ focus, teach the new material first, during prime time 1. This is the time of greatest retention. This is also a good time to re-teach any concept that the class members may have had difficulty understanding from the week before.
  • Avoid asking class members at the beginning of the lesson if they know anything about the new topic. The assumption is that most class members do not know the new topic. However, there are always some who are ready to take a guess! Because this is the time of greatest retention, almost anything that is said, including incorrect information, is likely to be remembered. So give the information and examples yourself to make sure that they are correct.
  • Avoid using precious prime-time periods for class management tasks, such as taking attendance or collecting the offering. Do these tasks before you get the focus, or during downtime.
  • Use the downtime portion to have members go over the new learning or to discuss it among themselves. Retention of learning does occur during the downtime, but it just takes more effort and concentration.
  • Do closure during prime time 2. This is the learner’s last opportunity to attach meaning to the new learning, to make decisions about it, and to determine where and how it will be transferred to long-term storage. The member’s brain must do the work at this time. If you wish to do a review, do so before closure in order to increase the chances that the closure experience is accurate. Doing review instead of closure is of little value to retention.
  • Try to package lesson objectives in teaching episodes of about 20 minutes. Link them according to the total time period available, e.g., two 20-minute lessons for a 40-minute teaching period, three for an hour, etc.

Of course, no single teaching method exists that is best for all students all the time.

Lecturers believe that they must cover a lot of information in a short period of time. So they lecture. But no one method should be used all the time. We know that the best way to learn something is to prepare to teach it. Whoever explains, learns.

So in light of all this “brain research,” assigning a portion of next week’s lesson to several class members not only helps you out but strengthens the brains of those who will be doing the preparation and delivery.

I hope they won’t forget to thank you!

W. Eugene Brewer
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists