Thursday, October 29, 2015

Can you remember more than 7 digits?

The other day, I came across this website that tests your ability to remember digits.

I thought it was interesting that, according to the website, the average person can remember 7 numbers at once. I've heard this before. This is supposedly the reason why telephone numbers are 7 digits long. At this point, I'm sure you're wondering if you are an "average" person. So, go try it...

Did you do it? I did it a few times myself and the farthest I got was 12 digits (my worst was 10). This probably means that I'm a superhuman or I have evolved past the rest of you. I'm sorry, but your days are numbered. (Numbered! Get it? No, of course you don't.)

I was still curious about this 7 digit claim, so I posed the problem to my students. Can the average person really only remember 7 numbers?

I had all of my students load the website and play along. After everyone was finished, I recorded the results and made a line plot with the data.

I asked the students to talk to their neighbors about whether or not this data confirms that the average person can remember 7 digits. Overwhelmingly, they felt pretty good about it, especially since the median of the data was 7. (I should note that sixth grade standards are all about analyzing distributions.) They were also able to see that more than half of the students were able to remember at least 7 digits, but less than half could remember 8 or more. Another reason to believe the claim that the average person could remember 7 digits.

We then discussed strategies for memorizing the numbers. Some students mentioned that they chunked the data...remembering 62 as "sixty-two" instead of "six-two". Some of them would practice typing them to build the motor memory. 

I also shared a couple of my own strategies...sometimes I could associate a number with something. For instance, once I saw a 53 and, for whatever bizarre reason, I remember that as Bobby Abreu's jersey number. Once I had that image of Bobby Abreu in my head, I stopped worrying about remembering 53. For the longer sets of digits, I would repeat the second half of digits over and over again while staring at the first half of digits. This way, I was relying on both my visual and auditory memory.

Now that the students had some new strategies, I gave them another chance to increase their digits.

As you can see, the data changed, but there really wasn't much improvement. Many students did worse while a few did marginally better. We couldn't make much sense of it, though we suspected that some of these strategies need to be practiced before we could see some results.

At this point, it would have been nice to keep practicing to see if we could improve, but my period is only 37 minutes long. I also had a couple of situations where students figured out they could copy and paste their answers. Cheating would be difficult to monitor.

Side note: Some of my students with IEPs could only remember three digits. This was consistent each time they made an attempt. This was eye-opening for me...when short-term memory is so weak, learning anything must be a huge struggle.