- Press Release Distribution

Understanding ‘how’ pupils learn is key to tackling wandering focus in a digital age

( School attendance figures are dwindling, there are more pupils than ever before needing additional support, and a demanding legion of exams – all of which mean pupils are struggling to learn, an education expert has warned.

But, he suggests, with a renewed focus on the techniques of learning, pupils can be guided to success.

In a difficult environment for teachers, it is clear they need support. Failure might be inevitable in a classroom, former teacher Alex Quigley argues, but if teachers can understand why learning has failed, they can address it and adapt their teaching with more success.

In his new book, Why Learning Fails, he uses the latest research to offer practical tips for maximizing working memory, managing pupil attention, and creating a good practical foundation to learning.

A recent focus in schools has been developing the curriculum, but Quigley asks if this enough for success: “In focusing so hard on curriculum – and considering what teachers teach – have we given sufficient attention to how pupils learn? Have we considered pupils’ motivations and emotions as much as their prior knowledge and memory capacity?”

The ‘how’ of teaching

Quigley explains that the current focus in UK schools is on high quality curricula, homing in on what knowledge should be taught in the curriculum and for whom.

But, he argues, while a focus on curriculum may offer a necessary foundation for learning, in considering what teachers teach not enough attention is consistently given to how pupils learn.

“When we focus on creating the conditions for how pupils learn best, we recognize that pupils attend school with different levels of prior knowledge (and misconceptions), different motivations and interests, different beliefs about themselves and what they can learn.

“Given this brilliant complexity, we recognize that adaptive teaching is necessary and that every teacher requires a strong shared understanding of learning – how it routinely fails – and what to do about it,” he explains.

There are many complex ways in which learning can fail, Quigley explains, but he suggests teachers can learn these reasons and mitigate against them.

Some of the reasons learning can fail are the limits of working memory; patchy prior knowledge or pre-existing misconceptions; pupils implementing faulty planning strategies; wandering attention and falling motivation in the face of failure.

When memory fails

Quigley points to scientific studies showing the limits of working memory – the rapid processing and recalling of information, as opposed to the higher capacity ‘long-term memory’.

For instance, depending on the nature of what is being learned, our working memory can handle between something like four and seven bits of information before it is forgotten or stored, depending upon factors such as whether the material is familiar.

Struggling with working memory is related to pupils’ ability to plan, to problem solve, and to sustain their attention. Quigley points to studies that show around 41% of pupils who struggled in national tests in Key Stage 1 for English had poor working memory, with 52% of pupils who achieved the same low levels in maths at the same age.

“A problem for many teachers is that they don’t have a strong understanding of working memory – its limits, factors that inhibit its functioning, along with practical supports,” he explains.

In a survey of 1,425 educational professionals, there was a good deal of familiarity with working memory; however, crucially, there was ‘considerable variability’ in the factors that identify poor working memory as well as the strategies that could assist pupils.

“Put simply, teachers need to know more about working memory failures and what to do about them,” Quigley explains.

How to ‘hack’ memory

Quigley suggests teachers should develop a curriculum with memory in mind, which communicates with pupils the natural limits of their memory and offers subject specific tasks and guidance.

Some strategies teachers can use to try to tackle the limits of working memory, according to Quigley’s extensive research, include utilizing the power of emotive memory. Teachers can wed a complex topic to powerful storytelling that consolidates understanding. For instance, the striking personal stories of Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale can both illuminate the history of medicine and build emotive connections.

Teachers should also focus on chunking down stepped tasks to bypass working memory limits and can integrate worked examples to support working memory through complex tasks.

Research also suggests repeating new content three times (at least) is more likely to be integrated into pupils’ understanding, push out nagging misconceptions.

Struggles with attention and planning

There is a persistent challenge of sustaining attention and overcoming pupils’ natural tendency to conserve their mental effort, Quigley suggests. Mind wandering is a potential challenge to learning for all pupils, and there are even more specific needs for those with ADHD.

In a world where technology is liable to steal children’s focus and attention, what can teachers do about it?

“Pupils can struggle for focus and concentration in a world of mass distraction. Successful teaching becomes a complex matter of making the curriculum ‘clever and vivid’ for pupils,” Quigley explains. “Pragmatically, it is likely an exercise in carefully negotiating small windows of focused attention and high mental effort during the school day.”

To tackle this Quigley suggests explicit modeling in selecting, switching, and sustaining attention. First, teachers can offer pupils the understanding that their attention is finite and that focusing is effortful. Second, teachers can be explicit about how to focus more effectively on as many learning scenarios as possible.

Some strategies include stimulating a pupil’s personal interest, engaging in short, manageable tasks known as ‘learning sprints’, or having moments of targeted hyperfocus by spotlighting specific parts of a task.

Planning and executing tasks

Pupils of all skill levels and ages can also underestimate how much planning they need to undertake to succeed, or worse, they don’t think that they need to plan at all. But Quigley believes teachers can also teach children how to plan to execute difficult tasks.

“A pupil’s brain is still undergoing maturation. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for functions such as planning and impulse control, is still developing, so planning can be a struggle, and lots of repeated practice is needed,” Quigley explains.

He suggests teachers must be explicit about planning, helping pupils to allocate appropriate effort for planning strategies like checklists, time planning, mind maps and annotations. Planning is not something that just comes ‘naturally’, he argues, it needs lots of teaching and sustained support.

But he says none of this is possible without a school culture that allow teachers to be adaptive.

“Crucially, teachers need ample support – time, training, and tools – to move from experienced teachers to adaptive experts. Teachers exhausted by excess paperwork, poor systems, or endless marking practices, are unlikely to be able to properly invest in their expertise.

“Adaptability, versatility, and resilience are the qualities that can make out the expert teacher who doesn’t just survive the job but thrives, routinely turning learning failures into success. But adaptability, versatility and resilience are not character traits – they are quality that can be trained, supported, and rewarded,” he says.



Everest mountaineer’s letters digitized for the first time

Everest mountaineer’s letters digitized for the first time
Letters written by the famous mountaineer George Mallory have been made available to a global audience for the first time, in the centenary year of his fatal attempt to scale Everest.   An alumnus of Magdalene College, Cambridge, Mallory is known for purportedly replying "because it's there" when asked by a reporter why he wanted to climb Everest. There is still debate about whether he and his climbing partner Andrew ‘Sandy’ Irvine did in fact make it to the top ...

Scientists worldwide in line for US$1.1 million Frontiers Planet Prize as 2024 National Champions announced

Scientists worldwide in line for US$1.1 million Frontiers Planet Prize as 2024 National Champions announced
The Frontiers Planet Prize today (22 April) announced 23 National Champions drawn from science research teams across six continents in the second year of the global competition. The Prize recognizes scientists whose research contributes to accelerating solutions that ensure humanity remains safely within the boundaries of the Earth's ecosystem. The National Champions now move forward to the final round of the competition, where three International Champions will be awarded 1 million CHF each to support their research. ...

Study shows more than half of global infectious diseases experts surveyed rate influenza as the number one pathogen of concern of pandemic potential

**Note: this is an early release from the ESCMID Global Congress (formerly ECCMID, Barcelona, Spain, 27-30 April). Please credit the congress if you use this story** New research presented at the ESCMID Global Congress (formerly ECCMID) in Barcelona, Spain (27-30 April) shows that in a VACCELERATE Consortium survey study in which infectious diseases experts were asked to rank pathogens in order of their pandemic potential, influenza was considered the pathogen of highest pandemic risk, with 57% ranking influenza as number one, and a further 17% ranking it second (See full table, notes to editors). The study is by Dr Jon Salmanton-García, University ...

Empty-handed neurons might cause neurodegenerative diseases

Empty-handed neurons might cause neurodegenerative diseases
Tokyo, Japan – Researchers from Tokyo Metropolitan University have identified how proteins collect abnormally in neurons, a feature of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. They used fruit flies to show that depletion of mitochondria in axons can directly lead to protein accumulation. At the same time, significantly high amounts of a protein called eIF2β were found. Restoring the levels to normal led to a recovery in protein recycling. Such findings promise new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.   Every cell in our bodies is a busy factory, where proteins ...

Black women hospitalised in USA with blood infection resistant to last-resort antibiotic at increased risk of death

Nationwide analysis of a large, geographically diverse cohort of adults in the USA suggests increased risk for hospital-acquired carbapenem-resistant enterobacterales bloodstream infections among racial and ethnic minorities may be due in part to hospitalisations for underlying comorbidities and associated with racial and biological sex inequities **ECCMID has now changed name to ESCMID Global, please credit ESCMID Global Congress (Barcelona, Spain, 27-30 April) in all future stories** New research being presented at this year’s ESCIMD Global Congress (formerly ...

NEC Society Statement on the Watson vs. Mead Johnson Verdict

NEC Society Statement on the Watson vs. Mead Johnson Verdict
Given the litigation involving products used to feed and support the growth of preterm infants and the direct implication for infants who are at risk of and who have been affected by necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), the NEC Society previously released a statement on the lawsuits. This statement addresses the Watson case. Necrotizing enterocolitis is a devastating intestinal inflammatory disease that can affect premature or otherwise medically fragile infants during their first weeks and months of life. Upon diagnosis, many babies have only hours or days before their intestines become necrotic, progressing to sepsis, multisystem ...

Lemur’s lament: When one vulnerable species stalks another

Lemur’s lament: When one vulnerable species stalks another
What can be done when one threatened animal kills another? Scientists studying critically endangered lemurs in Madagascar confronted this difficult reality when they witnessed attacks on lemurs by another vulnerable species, a carnivore called a fosa. This dynamic can be particularly complex when the predation occurs in an isolated or poor-quality habitat, according to research from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar. In the new paper published in Ecology and Evolution, researchers describe how they were observing small groups of critically endangered diademed ...

Surf clams off the coast of Virginia reappear – and rebound

Surf clams off the coast of Virginia reappear – and rebound
The Atlantic surfclam, an economically valuable species that is the main ingredient in clam chowder and fried clam strips, has returned to Virginia waters in a big way, reversing a die-off that started more than two decades ago. In a comprehensive study of surfclams collected from an area about 45 miles due east from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Rutgers scientists found the population to be thriving and growing. A likely reason could be that environmental conditions improved, and another possibility is that the clams adapted, ...

Studying optimization for neuromorphic imaging and digital twins

Harbir Antil (PI), director of the Center for Mathematics and Artificial Intelligence (CMAI), professor of Mathematical Sciences, and Rainald Löhner (co-PI), director of Computational Fluid Dynamics Lab, professor of Physics and Astronomy, received funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), under the prestigious DURIP program, to establish a neuromorphic imaging and digital twins lab with capabilities to design new optimization algorithms.  This project will set up the Neuromorphic Imaging and Digital Twins Lab—a first of its kind ...

ORNL researchers win Best Paper award for nickel-based alloy tailoring

ORNL researchers win Best Paper award for nickel-based alloy tailoring
Rishi Pillai and his research team from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory will receive a Best Paper award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers International Gas Turbine Institute in June at the Turbo Expo 2024 in London.   The winning paper is “Leveraging Additive Manufacturing to Fabricate High Temperature Alloys with Co-Designed Mechanical Properties and Environmental Resistance,” which Pillai presented in June at the Turbo Expo 2023 in Boston.   The ORNL scientists co-designed a compositionally graded nickel-based alloy for molten halide salts-supercritical carbon dioxide heat exchangers. The objective ...


Algorithms could help improve judicial decisions

Scientists uncover a multibillion-year epic written into the chemistry of life

Monitoring diseases through sweat becomes accessible to everyone

Mathematical model driven evolutionary therapy dosing exploiting cancer cell plasticity

Biodiversity in the margins: Merging farmlands affects natural pest control

1 in 8 pregnant people have a disability, but significant gaps exist in the provision of accessible care

Statins associated with decreased risk for CVD and death, even in very old adults

Climate change is moving tree populations away from the soil fungi that sustain them

Secrets of sargassum: Scientists advance knowledge of seaweed causing chaos in the Caribbean and West Africa

Bioinformatics approach could help optimize soldiers’ training for improved readiness and recovery

Earth scientists describe a new kind of volcanic eruption

Warmer wetter climate predicted to bring societal and ecological impact to the Tibetan Plateau

Feeding infants peanut products protects against allergy into adolescence

Who will like beetle skewers? What Europeans think about alternative protein food

ETRI wins ‘iF Design Award’ for mobile collaborative robot

Combating carbon footprint: novel reactor system converts carbon dioxide into usable fuel

Investigating the origin of circatidal rhythms in freshwater snails

Altering cellular interactions around amyloid plaques may offer novel Alzheimer’s treatment strategies

Brain damage reveals part of the brain necessary for helping others

Surprising properties of elastic turbulence discovered

Study assesses cancer-related care at US hospitals predominantly serving minority populations compared with non-minority serving hospitals

First in-human investigator-initiated clinical trial to launch for refractory prostate cancer patients: Novel alpha therapy targets prostate-specific membrane antigen

Will generative AI change the way universities communicate?

Artificial Intelligence could help cure loneliness, says expert

Echidnapus identified from an ‘Age of Monotremes’

Semaglutide may protect kidney function in individuals with overweight or obesity and cardiovascular disease

New technique detects novel biomarkers for kidney diseases with nephrotic syndrome

Political elites take advantage of anti-partisan protests to disrupt politics

Tiny target discovered on RNA to short-circuit inflammation, UC Santa Cruz researchers find

Charge your laptop in a minute? Supercapacitors can help; new research offers clues

[] Understanding ‘how’ pupils learn is key to tackling wandering focus in a digital age