The first, the last, the wow, the connection…

There are two effects from my cognitive psychology class (WaHoo-Wa) that were triggered by a recent sentence in The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker (you MUSTread it). She states that people remember the first 5%, the last 5%, and the climactic moments in a story or conversation or talk. In cognitive psych, the first two are known as primacy and recency.

The primacy effect is that you remember things at the beginning of a list (or conversation or speech, etc) because they occurred first. It is the in this transition into the idea that you root that thought or memory. The recency effect is the idea that you also tend to remember the items that occurred last. What does this mean for a psych undergrad? It means before you know about this concept, you will do an experiment where someone reads you a list of 15 or 20 words and you will have to list all of the words you remember. When your list has only words from the beginning and the end of the list, then the professor will explain that this phenomenon is called primacy and recency. In the real world, this means that when someone watches a keynote speech at a conference, they will remember the opening and a few early points and the closing when they try to explain the speech later that week to their colleagues.

Priya Parker adds another layer to this onion in the idea that people also remember climactic moments of the event. If there is a moment in the middle of a story when the speaker suffers enormous hardship or a moment of great surprise, people are also likely to remember these sections of the story. Moments of great importance are considered such for a reason.

I look to take this one step further. In addition to primacy, recency, and climactic events, people will also remember those items that are most relatable for them regardless of position in the story or level of excitement/importance. If, in the middle of the keynote address at your college commencement speech, the speaker referenced his cousin’s cat DelRoy and you happen to have a cousin named DelRoy who looks just like a cat, you’ll remember that moment in the speech for the rest of your life. Now, there are parts of this idea you can plan for and manipulate and those you cannot. Mentioning your cousin’s cat DelRoy is not likely to trigger a memory for most people in your crowd or classroom, but rooting a story in a prevailing news story of the time or an idea from popular culture can help trigger this last effect. Are these ideas of connecting learning to prior knowledge or authentic experience starting to sound familiar?

What does this have to do with education?

In designing a curriculum, unit, lesson, or even segment of a lesson, it is vital to know and understand how the mind works to help manipulate the engagement level of the audience and the retention of those packets of learning. Brain science (aka cognitive psych) is becoming more and more prevalent in teaching and learning circles because of the profound impact these concepts have in the classroom. If a teacher layers climactic moments and connections to pop culture into the middle of a lesson, they may be able to facilitate the retention of more than just the primacy and recency effects. When you plan your next story or meeting agenda or keynote or nugget of instruction, think about ‘the first, the last, the wow, and the connection’.