Effective Learning Episodes – Primacy and Recency

One of my roles in school is to support teachers in the planning of outstanding lessons. I particularly enjoy working on this issue with student teachers and newly-qualified teachers, and recently, I was discussing the idea of planning ‘learning episodes’ during a lesson with a new teacher.  I was asked why it was so important to give such detailed thought to a lesson’s structure. A fair question, and in order to answer it, I had an opportunity to revisit  the ‘Primacy-Recency Effect’, and refresh my thoughts on how I plan my own lessons.

During lessons, students will remember more at certain times than others. It is easy to illustrate this point through a simple test devised by Madeline Hunter. Study the list of 10 words below for just 12 seconds. Then cover the list and write as many of the words as you remember in the correct order in the spaces on the right.

KEF      1. ___

LAK      2. ___

MIL      3. ___

NIR      4. ___

VEK      5. ___

LUN     6. ___

NEM    7. ___

BEB      8. ___

SAR      9. ___

FIF      10. ___

It is likely that people remember the first 3 to 5 words and the last 1-2 words, but had difficulty with the words in the middle. This pattern in remembering the words is a common phenomenon and is known as the ‘primacy-recency’ effect. If we apply this to students’ learning in lessons, it means that they remember best what comes first, and remember second best what comes last, and remember least that which comes just past the middle.

The graph below shows how the primacy-recency effect influences what students are likely to retain during a 40 minute lesson. The two retention ‘peaks’ at the start and end of the lesson are clearly visible, as is the middle section where retention still takes place, but is much reduced. David Sousa (in “How The Brain Learns”, see below) refers to the peaks as ‘prime time’, and the middle section as ‘down time’.

The implications of this theory are important when we plan learning activities. The first ‘peak’ is the best time to teach new information and skills, as it is here when it will be best remembered. This is not a time to spend on taking registers, collecting homework, reading announcements and so on. Students should be exposed to the new information of the lesson long before they reach the less fertile middle section of the lesson.  However, students will remember almost any information forthcoming at this first ‘peak’ time, so it is perhaps not the best time to play guessing games or search for what students may know about a topic. Any incorrect guesses or misconceptions are likely to be embedded! The new material introduced in a lesson can be consolidated by practice activities or review during the middle section of ‘down time’, and the lesson can be concluded in the second ‘peak’ when the students will be more receptive to determining sense and meaning about the selected topic.

The proportion of prime time to down time varies with the length of lessons. In a forty minute lesson, the two prime time peaks total about 30 minutes (75%) with down time equal to 10 minutes (25%) of time. But in an eighty minute lesson, down time increases to 30 minutes or 38% of the time. However, if we shorten the learning time to 20 minutes, the down time is the equivalent to only about 2 minutes or 10% of the lesson time. The message here is clear, and the reason why it is good practice to ‘chunk down’ long lessons into shorter discrete learning episodes. Two or three ‘mini-lessons’ can be more effective than one long one – especially if it is predominantly teacher-led. Although we still use the classic three part lesson as a guiding structure in my school, teachers are encouraged to think more in terms of episodes of learning rather than whole lessons, and use regular ‘floating plenaries’ to check on understanding and progress with students.

You can read more about primacy and recency, and the reasons why our brains work this way in the paper “How The Brain Learns” below written by David Sousa:

How The Brain Learns


About devongeography

Head of Geography and Assistant Vice Principal at South Molton Community College, North Devon. Exeter Chiefs supporter!
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