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Helping with Student Focus & Motivation in the Remote Classroom, Part 1: Considering Serial Position Effect

One of the issues I'm most concerned about in teaching online is keeping the attention of my students.  Many students this spring have reported difficulties with motivation and staying focused during their remote learning experiences.  Over the next few weeks, I plan to write about some of the strategies legal research instructors can consider to help their students stay focused and motivated in the classroom.

Today, we're going to kick off that project by writing about serial position effect.  Serial position effect is the simple principle that most people will remember the information at the beginning and end of a list or lecture, and forget most other items that come in the middle.[1]  The obvious implication for teaching, then, is that the points we teach at the beginning and end of a class session are the ones students are most likely to remember, and therefore we should emphasize our most important concepts during those most impactful time frames.  We must design our classes with an understanding that what students recall most is what takes place in the opening minutes of class and what they remember second most is what takes place in the closing minutes.

Often, this is contrary to what we do in class.  Many instructors often use the precious minutes at the start and end of class to deal with what I call "housekeeping" matters--those administrative points related to assignments, asking students how they're doing, giving class reminders, handing out assessments. By doing so, we are effectively detracting from our learning objectives for that class, simply by not teaching our most important points at the most critical juncture.

It's a fairly easy fix.  Instead of eating up those important minutes with minutiae, try to begin classes by giving the three or four most essential learning points before mentioning anything else.  Hit those critical points early and then you can return to elaborate on each during the class session (repetition also helps with retention!).  If you have handouts, like guided notes, that students need for the lecture, have students pick them up as they enter class, so you don't use up those opening minutes handing them out.  You can take time for administrative tasks midway through class to give your students a break from new learning. This will give them time to absorb what they've just been taught.  To close your class out strong and give students the best chance at remembering those most important concepts, wrap up by reiterating those key points instead of using those last minutes to hand out assignments and give any directions you may have about the assignment.  If you are concerned about handing out the assignment during one of those mid-class breaks because you're concerned students will start focusing on it instead of the lesson, just put it at the back of class, so students can pick it up on their way out.

Considering serial position effect is one small way to help ensure your students are picking up the key concepts of the class.  With distraction of an ongoing pandemic and the difficulties of the online learning environment, there are going to be focus issues, but designing classes with serial position effect in mind will help increase the odds that your students will retain the most significant learning from each class session.


To see other parts of this series:
Part II: Prioritizing Transparency
Part III:  Limiting New Technologies to Reduce Extrinsic Cognitive Load
Part IV: Building an Online Teaching Presence


[1] Laws of UX, Serial Position Effect, https://lawsofux.com/serial-position-effect.



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