Teaching 101: Getting Your Students to Listen

Have you ever given instruction to student only to receive a blank stare? What happened?

The most likely is problem is that you’ve maxed out their working memory.

A person’s working memory consists of what they can hold onto at one time and still do something else.

Be careful when giving instructions. Conserve the student’s working memory.

Quick tips:

  • Use a post-it note and say start here
  • Have music and show what that looks like
  • Save working memory for changing things (like holding onto a concept like playing the melody louder)

If you want a student to modify something, leave enough space in their working memory to concentrate on it.

Video Transcription:

Have you ever given instruction to a student and had them look at you with a blank stare? Because it used to happen to me a lot and it doesn’t happen to me quite as much anymore. I figured out what was happening.

When I ask a student to do something and the instruction is a little bit complicated, I use up their working memory. Working memory is the amount your student, or anybody for that matter, can hold in their head at one time. And especially what you can hold in your head and then do something else with it.

So let me give you an example from my life. It’s a little bit embarrassing but it’s a pretty clear example. A few years ago I went to visit my daughter’s high school for a back-to-school night. I hadn’t been there before and I was up on the second floor. I asked her where the bathroom was. She said, “Oh Mom, it’s really easy. You go out the door and go to the left go down the hall around and then you’ll see the stairs go down the stairs when you get out of stairs make a left cross across the lobby units over there on the right.”

And I looked at her. And I thought, I have no idea what she just said. I was totally fine with, “Out the door kind of down the hall you’ll see the stairs go downstairs,” But as soon as she changed levels I had no capacity to hear anything else. I had no idea where I was going to find that bathroom. And it was sort of an important moment for me because it had been awhile since I’ve had that experience of being just completely overwhelmed by what somebody else thought was a very simple instruction.

So let me give you an an everyday example that might happen in teaching. Here’s a piece called Tango Taboo. This is a piece I wrote. Let’s say you wanted your student to start in a specific place.

You could say something like, “Could you start on the second page after that really long high note you know on the second system where the left hand comes back in.”

More likely than not your student will say, “Where?” (If they even say anything at all.)

Another way to do that is just to take a Post-it note and say, “Play here.”

Then they haven’t used up any of their working memory in order to figure out something simple like where they’re supposed to start to play. When you’re working with a student, save as much working memory as you can for actually changing something, for considering something new. If they’re trying to hold on to a concept like, “Play the melody louder than the accompaniment,” but they’ve used up all of their working memory figuring out where they’re supposed to start, they’ll never be able to then remember what the task was at hand. One of the most important things you want to do when you’re asking a student to change something is to leave enough space in their working memory so they’ll be able to still remember what they’re supposed to do.