Three is the magic number: a thought on memory

I remember watching a sales tutorial video when we used in the financial sector before I came to teaching. We were putting together training packages for new recruits and one piece of advice that was given during sales was:

Always sell with three things. Three benefits, three features, three possibilities. Two is insufficient for a product to look as if it is worth investment; it falls short. Four, and you’re trying too hard- it appeared as though your product falls short, but this time, you’re overcompensating as a result.

This is essentially why ‘rule of three’ is the all time favourite for every persuasive writing scheme passed through secondary schools, and the one that students remember (along with hyper-bowl. Every time). But why is it that three is the magic number?

There’s a few areas at play here: the role of memory, how we impart the three things, the purpose of what we are using the rule of three for, and for the purposes of revision, how to apply it effectively.

Your short term memory- the one we often refer to as the memory that helps us to remember what we ate for lunch yesterday- isn’t actually the first memory in use. Well, it is, but we often talk about it in the wrong way.

Working memory is the memory store that takes in information as we are given it, where it is held for 15-30 seconds before we either do something with it, or it’s lost. Of this working memory, Baddesley’s model states that this segment of working memory stores in three different ways; phonological loop, episodic buffer and dual coding mean machine, the visuospatial sketchpad. The episodic buffer wasn’t added to this model until a later point, but the two original storage areas in working memory explain why we struggle to listen to two people giving information (noise levels allowing), or read and speak at the same time. This is why ‘reading along,’ or exploring vocabulary in context is so challenging and counter productive ( see David Didau’s post here for further exploration on reading aloud and memory.)

As I understand it, this 30 second (approximation) window then allows us to make the choice to lose the information forever, repeat the act of gaining the information so that it becomes memorable through finding a connection with our long term memory or find some way of transferring into our long term memory, by making it memorable in some way, or the act of repeating until it forms meaning by way of a recognised structure. Your working memory will also only hold a limited amount of information before being forced to put it elsewhere- process it as something worth hanging on to, or discard it and if you do feel it was important, you must regain the information and start again. Retaking a date of birth, or respelling an unknown word.

I wanted to work out why three things were important; students’ ears perk up when I say I have ‘three top tips’ for them. Like one wasn’t enough. But is it simply that the fact that there are three of them actually make it more of a certainty that the information will get through to the long term memory Hall of Fame? Or, is it because three is a number that our working memory is used to working with? That my top tips may not make it to the forever bank, but there is comfort that there are three facts that could possibly float about somewhere, for use at a later point?

I’m not in a position to confirm, but I know that three brings me comfort as a teacher, and helps me to focus in the midst of exam season, when there is a danger to overload students and repeat everything you ever taught (Chris Curtis wrote a great piece about being a rudder here). Three things keeps me succinct, at a point where students are looking for the silver bullet.

Some of my three things for revision:

Magic three for anthology Retrieval Practice; three things about context, three things about language, three things about the structure. If students are struggling to explore structure (which is what happens), I advise to speculate on the title choice, the relationship between the first and final line, and the arrangement of the poem, of it reflects the poem in some way. ‘It flows’ is strictly off the table.

I tend to find that once they have the most vivid aspects of the poem to hand, the rest comes back to them.

Physically, emotionally, psychologically; more about this in my post here.

Magic three for academic writing; never I, write at a distance, tiptoe in. To drive critical voice, we remove ourselves from the response (this is particularly valuable for evaluation questions where students are just dying to state,’ I agree’ because after all, that’s what we do when someone asks to what extent we agree with something. To write at a distance, we ensure that we haven’t jumped into the text, Dick Van Dyke style, and are referring to characters like they are real people. Sheila Birling is NOT open minded, because we don’t know her mind, because she doesn’t exist. Priestley depicts Sheila as someone who has a moral compass, because he wants to present a liberally minded role model with changed option to young people, but particularly young women. Tiptoe in: tentative language. Possibly, could be, perhaps. Don’t commit. You’re an academic, not a mind reader.

A 3A thesis; for literature, students remember three sophisticated adjectives to describe characters. Becky Wood put some fantastic vocabulary lists together for Romeo And Juliet that my students loved, and thanks to Natalie for her amazing A Christmas Carol list. Students then choose three words to explore the character, the final one being a trait that the character doesn’t possess until a change or development in the plot prompts them to do so. These three words then act as a starting point, but also form a loose plan for character questions for responses. For example, ‘It could be argued that Dickens depicts Scrooge cruel, usurious and vulnerable (don’t forget your academic magic 3 here, kids).’ The inclusion of vulnerability allows us to explore how the ghosts present the opportunity for Scrooge to experience vulnerability, so that he can then develop feelings of empathy.

I’ve included four examples, just to test your working memory. You’re welcome.

Sources and further reading:


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