Understanding Will - part 4: Why is copying from the board so difficult?


This is the fourth in a series of posts, Understanding Will,  in which we share what we have learnt about Will and how in understanding him better we have helped him to use different learning strategies.

Will finds copying text and diagrams from the whiteboard challenging. He never completes the copying task in the allocated time and his copied work is full of errors.

Hardly surprising as copying is a cognitively demanding task that involves switching between attentional processes.

Before Will can begin copying, he has to ensure that he is organized with paper and writing implements at the ready - challenging in itself!

Then he has to engage in a number of sequential steps, each step placing high demands on his working memory.
  • Will reads the text. This involves deciphering the text (a perceptual issue) and decoding it, using phoneme to grapheme links to create meaningful retrieval cues. Here, Will's working memory weaknesses and limited capacity are likely to limit his understanding of the text.
  • Will holds small chunks of information "in his head," e.g. a single letter or word, whilst deciding where to position it on the paper (place keeping).
  • Will now has to write down the information he is holding. To do this he has to maintain and manipulate the information whilst focusing his attention on, amongst other things, grammar, spelling and letter formation. ( A mammoth task!)
  • Next, Will scans the text on the board to track what he has already copied down (place keeping). As he is unable to hold the text that he has already copied "available" whilst scanning the further text, Will quickly loses track of his place in the text and as a result will omit, repeat or insert words as he copies.
  • Will reads and holds the next part of the text to be copied "in his head". (see step 2)
  • Will locates where on his paper to copy the text (place keeping) whilst holding the information.
  • Will has to write the text onto his paper. (see step 3)

Will repeats this process until he has finished copying down the text, a laborious and time-consuming task. The longer the text, the higher the burden on Will's place keeping skills and working memory.

In beginning to understand the immense cognitive demands that the apparently simple task of copying places on the working memory, we have begun to question the validity of the use of this teaching practice in education.

Does making students copy things out result in any real development of learning and understanding or does it set some students up to fail?

Anita Johnson


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