Here is a list of nonsense words:
lurst, nifkin, bluck, pansate, wazzle, morky, wolire, chagg, fonticule, kittop, glope, tercopular, moobin
Fun, aren’t they?
In 1964, a German researcher named Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a series of experiments using words like those above. He wanted to determine whether the position of a word on a list affected how easily it could be recalled. To accomplish this, Ebbinghaus prerecorded lists of nonsense syllables, then played them to himself and tried to recall them. He found that the words near the beginning and end of the list were more readily recalled than those in the middle. He called this the “serial position effect” and postulated that the words at the end of the list were more easily recalled because they were still in his short-term memory, a phenomenon he called “recency effect.”
The recency effect is a recognized cognitive bias nowadays, and you see it everywhere. Your favorite sports team (and its coach) is judged by what they have done lately, regardless of how successful they’ve been in the past. Investors make decisions based on how the stock market has done recently, instead of paying attention to historical trends. Companies use the recency effect in their marketing by making sure the product is as attractive as possible at the point of purchase. You get angry with your spouse over some trivial matter and forget all about the wonderful things they did just last week. Recency matters, and the classroom is no exception.
Recency bias explains why the last hour of school has the potential to ruin your (and your students’) perception of an entire day.
Earlier this year, my class was really struggling during the last 45 minutes of most days. I’d shoehorned science into this time slot and was attempting to include a lot of hands-on group work into my units. Students were not handling it well. Many were off-task. Patience was thin. Kids argued and fought over everything from who got to use what, to how long they used it, to whose idea was good and whose wasn’t. There were more than a few blowups from students whose frustrations reached the boiling point. And of course, my own willpower was at its nadir. I had little tolerance for nonsense and that just made the whole thing even more volatile. It wasn’t a good situation.
When I got home and my wife asked me how my day had gone, I told her it was horrible. I replayed what had happened at the end of the day and lamented how poorly I’d taught procedures and expectations. I complained that I wouldn’t be able to do hands-on, fun science experiments because the kids just couldn’t handle it. I was mentally drained, physically exhausted, and I didn’t even want to think about going back the next day.
This was recency bias at work. But the truth was quite different.
For most of the day, my class was great. Mornings almost always went well. The students listened, worked hard, got along, and had positive attitudes. Most of the afternoon was productive, too. More students were on-task during independent reading than I’d had in years. They worked well with partners. Even recess was good. We had very few behavior problems on the playground.
When I really thought about it, the only time my students had trouble was during the last 45 minutes of the day. The problem was that when I went home for the day, it was this 45 minutes that I remembered. It left a terrible taste in my mouth, and since the recency effect also works on children, it was a horrible way for students to end the day, too. I imagine that after those chaotic science lessons, many students went home with few good feelings about being in my class. They likely shared those opinions with their parents, just as I had with my wife.
Ending your day poorly is a really good way to destroy your classroom culture, as well as your own enthusiasm for the job.
I had to find a way to combat the recency effect. So here is what I did. Try these strategies if you are finding that your last hour is spoiling the whole day.
First, be aware of this cognitive bias we all have and give the end of the day the same weight you give the rest of it. At the end of my difficult days, I took a few minutes to just sit at my desk and replay each subject in my head. This way, I could remember how students had done during different periods of the day and remember that although we might have ended on a sour note, most of the day was actually pretty productive. Acknowledge the recency effect, and don’t judge your whole day based on how it ended.
Focus on the Majority
We teachers have a tendency to focus on the negative outliers, and I’m no different. 20 students can be doing their jobs, but if three are arguing and one of them throws a fit and goes storming out of the room, the whole lesson feels like a debacle, I feel like a failure, and I worry what students think about my classroom management. Instead of focusing on the problematic few, I try to force myself to think about the majority. I’ve written more about this in my article, How to Feel Like Less of a Failure.
Understand Why It Happens
While doing research for my book Exhausted, I learned a lot about willpower. We start each day with a given amount. As the day goes on, we use it up. By the end of the day, our stores of willpower are exhausted and we have a much harder time regulating our emotions. Glucose is the fuel we need for self-control. By 3:00, we’re pretty low on it, so students have a harder time using willpower to do the right thing. It takes energy to resist temptation and have patience with others, and by the end of the day, many students, especially those who have to use the most willpower to do the right thing the rest of the day, just don’t have any left. I explained all of this to my students, but while understanding helps, it doesn’t make it any less infuriating when you feel like the class is going off the rails.
Teach Expected Behaviors
Since I knew the last hour was going to be a challenge, I committed to being much more intentional and detailed about expectations. Before we got out the science materials and split off into groups, I taught and modeled exactly what students needed to do. We also made If/Then plans for handling predictable obstacles. “If Tony isn’t sharing the magnet, then I will remind him that everyone needs a turn before time is up.”
Frankly, all the modeling and careful attention to detail annoyed me. I’d spend 15 minutes going over all this stuff, which meant students were pinched for time to perform the science activity, which led to some of the problems I was trying to prevent. In my book Exhausted, I write about how researchers have discovered that people with the most self-control actually use very little of it in the way we normally think about exercising willpower. They don’t will themselves to do the right thing by staring temptation in the face. Instead, people with a lot of self-control use it preemptively to avoid temptations and distractions. College students with exceptional self-control use it to sit in the front row instead of using it to avoid daydreaming or playing on their laptops in the back of the lecture hall. Dieters don’t use willpower to stop themselves from eating a bowl of ice cream at night. They use it to not buy the ice cream in the first place. Knowing this, I finally figured out that the best way to set my class up to be more successful — and the best way to go home feeling good about my days — were to rearrange my schedule so that students wouldn’t have to use so much willpower at a time of day when they had very little of it. I moved science class to the morning and put writing–a much quieter, more independent subject–at the end of the day. That solved more problems than anything.
Flip the Script
The recency effect doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be used to your and your students’ advantage by ending every day with something positive. Brainstorm a list of things you could do with the last ten minutes that will linger in your and your students’ memories. You might have students share something good that happened to them, either aloud or in writing. You could end the day with music and dancing. You can end with a game that builds the classroom culture. You could have your class meeting at the end of the day and share positives and goals for the next day. At the very least, you could do as Michael Linsin recommends in this post and end each day with calm, predictable procedures and high-fives all around. Send them home smiling and excited to come back tomorrow. Send yourself home the same way.
And now, since you’re at the end of this article, do you remember any of the nonsense words at the start of it?
Wait, let me guess….
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