Adding the word ‘you’ to a task is a quick and free way to boost pupils’ learning DR SHE I LA CUNNINGHAM All about ME, ME, ME 36 | T eachers have long been encouraged to personalise information to fit children’s interests. For instance, we might create football-based maths questions or set a writing task about favourite pets. But this puts a strain on our time and resources, because it requires different materials for children with different interests. A simpler solution is to get the children to think about the one subject they are all interested in: themselves! In psychology, linking information to ourselves is known as ‘self-referencing’. There is lots of evidence that this can have a positive impact on learning. When information is about you, your attention system is automatically engaged. For example, if you were talking to one colleague but overheard another mentioning your name, could you keep on attending to your own conversation and ignore the one about you? Most people couldn’t, because self-relevant information automatically captures attention. This system ensures that information that is potentially relevant to you is not missed. Self-referenced information is also associated with enhanced memory. When you think about yourself while encoding new information, that material is slotted into the existing ‘self-knowledge framework’, the network of information you already hold about yourself in memory. You know more about yourself than any other concept, so activating this knowledge framework while encoding new information provides a powerful ready-made support system. The incoming information is organised and elaborated with existing self-knowledge, which increases the chance that it will be successfully recalled later. Our research has focused on examining whether the attention and memory biases we know are associated with self-referencing can be applied in education. To date, we have tested its effectiveness on a number of different literacy, numeracy and learning tasks. Across this variety of tasks, we’ve found very positive effects of self-referencing. Below are some examples: Spelling sentences In one study we took over the homework of primary school children, asking them to try a self-referenced and non-self-referenced version of the same task. The children were using their homework to practise spelling, by copying out their spelling words and generating sentences in which they could be used. One week, we asked the children to write sentences about themselves (“Start your sentence with the word ‘I’”) and another week, they were asked to write about Harry Potter (“Start your sentence with the word ‘Harry’”). The children’s end-of-week spelling tests showed that the self-reference (‘I’) week produced spelling that was significantly more accurate, and they also wrote longer sentences in this condition. This suggests that the children were more engaged in the task when they were writing about themselves, and their learning was improved as a result. We produced this statistically reliable improvement in pupils’ spelling learning with just a free and easy change of instruction, to make the task self-referent. Problem solving When children are trying to solve numerical problems, they have to keep a lot of information in working memory. They need to process the text, work out the operation to be applied and extract the right numbers to which to apply the operation. That is a lot to keep in mind! Given the effect of self-referencing on attention, it is perhaps unsurprising that research suggests including self-referent terms in maths problems could help. For example, take a common text-based maths problem: ‘Max has four apples, Jen has three apples more thanMax. How many apples does Jen have?’. In this example, the child has to keep track of Max and Jen, two new characters, and their belongings in working memory while working out the problem. We have examined the effectiveness of reducing the load by replacing one of the characters with the pronoun ‘you’. In the example above, a self-referenced version of the question would be ‘You have four apples, Jen has three “When information is about you, your attention systemis automatically engaged”