Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Primacy-Recency Effect

In spring of 2004 I attended the Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston. One of the keynote speakers was Kim Carraway, who asked us to do a little exercise in which she flashed on a screen for a vertical list of twelve three-letter nonsense words (kef, lak, mil, nir, vek, lun, nem, beb, sar, did, fow, pok). Before she put them up she told us we would be able to look at the list for about fifteen seconds, and then we would be asked to try to replicate from memory as much of the list as we could. Once we had taken a shot at it—it was harder than you would think—she gave us the correct answers and then polled the group as to how many of us had gotten each one correct. The results turned out to be predictable—in retrospect. Most of us got the first two or three, and the last two. Most of us forgot the stuff in the middle. This phenomenon, Kim explained, is known in psychological circles as the "primacy-recency effect," and it has some obvious implications for classroom practice, and some more subtle implications in terms of rhetorical strategies.

One implication in terms of classroom practice is that if it is true that students are more likely to remember the first thing you do at the beginning of a class session and the last thing you do at the end, perhaps it would be a good idea to break up the class into segments, with breaks in between, so that there are more beginnings and endings.

When I work with students, I often wind up talking with them a with about the position of emphasis. The position of emphasis in a sentence is the last word. (And, as the primacy-recency effect would suggest, the first word as well, to perhaps a lesser degree.) The position of emphasis in a paragraph is the last sentence. The position of emphasis in an essay is the last paragraph. The position of emphasis in a novel is the last chapter.

Understanding the logic of structure insfar as it affects emphasis helps students both in terms of their reading skills and their writing skills. For example, my sophomore class has just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible and we have been paying particular attention to the last words of each of the narrators: Orleanna, Leah, Rachel, Adah, and, surprisingly, Ruth May, who returns at the end of the book to speak from beyond the grave to her grieving mother. What the characters say last, and where the author chooses to drop us off at the end of a novel, goes a long way toward shaping what will wind up remembering about a book. Authors understand that, and shape their stories and essays and poems with that reality in mind. And student writers are well-advised, I think, to consider the implications of the logic of structure not just at the macro level, but at the sentence level as well.

So while we've been having the big discussion about the last words in The Poisonwood Bible, we've also been having a side discussion about last words in individual sentences that they have been writing. The other day I resurrected and revised a worksheet that I wrote a while ago to at least try to call attention to the issue.

Excerpts from the last monologues in The Poisonwood Bible:

Leah: There is not justice in this world...What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout the spheres of their influence. That's pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There's the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace. (522)

Adah: We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and I ever tried to pull out of it and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It's everyone's, come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization. (532)

Ruth May: Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history... Listen: being dead is not worse than being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger. (538)


God, I love that book.

1 comment:

Stephanie West Allen said...

Hello, Bruce. I mentioned your post in my blog today here:

http://westallen.typepad.com/idealawg/2007/04/one_way_to_impr.html