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Simplifying Instructions to Unleash the Power of Memory

by Tim Langford

Last month I attended a “train the trainer” workshop for TWI: Training Within Industry. Industry is a different world than education. However, as I took in the information that our instructor offered, my mind naturally gravitated to how these lessons apply to what I know best, the teaching of physics. This is a short article that attempts to link one best practice from industry to what you and I do daily in the physics classroom.

To repeat, training is not education; education is not training. The session I attended was aimed at an audience of manufacturing companies seeking to effectively train their employees to do routine repetitive jobs. As educators we have a different, perhaps even antithetical goal: to teach our students to think critically. Nevertheless, we must admit that some of what we require of our students is remarkably repetitive. Here I refer mainly to the skills that form the basis of the ability to “do physics”: skills such as solving typical “textbook-style” problems, making measurements, or constructing graphs. Our instructor assured us that employees do not read and follow written instructions; rather, they learn the job from a co-worker and then do it from memory. Industrial trainers, therefore, break down work instructions into a very easily digestible, memorisable, form.

This got me thinking about our students. Have you ever been frustrated, for example, with students who do not follow proper technique when drawing force diagrams1? Below is a set of instructions for constructing a force diagram, taken from the Web2. You may not agree that these are the right steps or in the right order, but try to ignore that for now. What we are interested in here is how to break down and simplify the instructions.

  1. Identify the object or objects of interest — we will call these objects the system. Objects outside the system are parts of the environment.
  2. Represent the system as a point-particle where we imagine all its mass is compressed into a single point.
  3. Draw a vector arrow representing each force acting on the system associated with each interaction. The force vectors do not need to be drawn to scale, but should be drawn roughly according to their relative magnitudes.
  4. Include a separate wiggly acceleration vector when appropriate.
  5. Draw a coordinate system with a sign convention. In most cases, it is convenient to choose the direction of the acceleration as positive; otherwise choose the direction of the velocity as positive.

This is a good set of instructions. One of its virtues is the economy in the number of steps. However, it contains too many words (122) to be memorized easily. Moreover, industry workers would not carry a “cheat sheet” or reminder card with instructions this wordy in their back pockets. Neither would our students. For encouraging students to correctly repeat a standard task like a force diagram we need a simplified set of instructions that students can memorize. The importance of memory cannot be understated. Workers in industry, my instructor assured us, memorize the job tasks early on and then do the job from memory. And while we want our students to analyze the forces acting on any system with their critical thinking hats on, at the same time they will be both comforted and more successful having some very pithy memorized steps at their fingertips.

What our industry instructor taught us is to break down work instructions, conveying the critical information in at most five steps with at most 25 words, but adding columns for “Key Points” and “Reasons”. The revised instructions for force diagrams might look something like this:


The first two columns are the parts that the student needs to memorize. There are only 25 words in these two columns. They can also be reproduced onto a pocket card or anchor chart, but the idea is that the student memorizes them. The “Reasons” are there because industrial research has found that workers will skip a step unless they understand clearly the reason why the step is there.

Try applying this technique to your instructions for problem solving, drawing graphs, making measurements, or any other task that has standardized repeatable steps. Keep the number of steps to five or fewer and the number of words in the first column to 25 or fewer. (Think Twitter, perhaps?) Then encourage, and possibly help, the students to memorize these new simplified steps. You will doubtless find that students are able to follow the instructions more closely and produce more effective results. The students will likely feel calmer and more empowered as well, because memorization is something they are good at, and because once that memory work is done they will feel like they have a skill “in their back pocket” that they can pull out at any time.

The psychology behind this seems common sense. In industry they simply say “KISS” (Keep It Simple, Stupid). We cannot use name-calling in education, but there is a link to a concept introduced to the OAPT years ago by Dave Doucette: cognitive load. To quote directly from Wikipedia:

In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. Cognitive load theory was developed out of the study of problem solving by John Sweller in the late 1980s. Sweller argued that instructional design can be used to reduce cognitive load in learners.3

My argument, to follow Sweller, is that students’ cognitive load can be reduced by allowing them to do what they already do very well: learn a simple set of steps by rote. This gives them something to “put in their back pocket,” something that will smooth out the bumps when solving any problem.

How does all this connect to this year’s conference theme, Affective Physics? Having a “go to” routine, one that they know by heart and could do in their sleep, calms and relaxes students, improves their confidence, and allows them to apply their mental effort to the parts of doing physics where critical thinking is required. We already make students practice, practice, practice for skills like drawing force diagrams. But practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect. Students will have a better chance of perfecting their practice if we keep instructions simple. Doing so involves thinking carefully about how those instructions are worded.

Please email me or write a short response for the newsletter and email it to Roberta.tevlin@gmail.com to tell us how you have simplified work instructions for your students.

  1. I side with those who use this term instead of “free body diagram”, agreeing that this label does not describe what the diagram shows.
  2. Not exactly taken at random! These are the instructions that I have been using. They were written by Chris Meyer and are available at www.meyercreations.com/physics.
  3. Cognitive Load in Wikipedia. Retrieved Nov. 25, 2016 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load
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