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What is Priming? How is it Effective in Education?

What is Priming?

Priming is one of the unconscious ways our memories work when we're identifying words, objects, tasks, or situations at hand.

Priming is a technique used in cognitive psychology that conditions responses by exposure to specific stimuli. It works with our unconscious responses to change our thought patterns and reactions by tapping into the way our brains process, store, and recall information. Priming is known to improve cognitive and behavioral response times. In addition, it decreases anxiety, stress, and depression and can even be a strong study aid.

The concept of priming in education is used to stimulate the learner's hardwired need to know, and makes it a satisfying experience so their brains recognize the value of energy spent learning.

  • It reduces anxiety for students who need predictability.

  • It often results in higher achievement in learning.

  • It can be done quickly and with little preparation.

  • It helps students transition from one activity to another.

I opened a discussion on our Facebook page, I gave the following to scenarios:

Scenario 1: “Everyone, take a seat. Today we will be learning about landforms.” *Teacher walks to front of the room, gathers her materials* some children show interest, most are not, some are even distracted during the few moments of unstructured time she is preparing to speak.

Scenario 2: Children walk into their environment greeted with model land forms, posters, books and modeling clay to manipulate into landforms.T he children explore these items and begin to ask questions about them. There has been zero instruction at this point from the teacher.

Then I asked:

*Explain why you think scenario 2 seemed to trigger engagement without any type of authoritative directions.

*Do you know what this is called?

Some of the answers included:

"Engagement from pure curiosity? Self directed and unstructured?I'm not sure what it's called. I am so interested though!"

"Sounds sort of like guided discovery."

These are great answers! These are some of the methods used in priming. Among the simplest of these strategies as mentioned in the first response is promoting curiosity and the learners' natural tendency to make predictions by advertising the content the same way that a marketing company might (see scenario 2.) This promotes advance interest, and the resulting questions increase the student curiosity, opening the brain's attentive intake filter. In short, it preps their minds to engage. They went from having to "listen" (scenario 1) to wanting to "learn."

There is no such intrinsic motivation for drills and memorization of rote facts and procedures. Isolated skill practice is contrary to the brain's instinct to preserve its energy, because there is no expectation of pleasure from energy output. On the other hand, when learners want to know required information to create solutions to problems that interest them or to create products that they care about, the brain applies the effort to learn what is required to achieve desirable goals. Priming unconsciously generates questions, thus creating interest, regardless of the learners' interest level in the actual topic... by way of human nature, they still need to know regarding their predictions.

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