Being able to focus on the most important information delivered during a lecture or read in a textbook is an essential part of learning and performing in class. Teachers often communicate the importance of information through statements they make such as, “You’ll need to know this for the test,” “The first step you need to use is ...,” or “Make sure you write this down.” Important information in textbooks is often identified by bold text, italics, or other highlighting.
The process of selecting and thinking about which information stands out or is most important is called saliency determination. Saliency determination enables students to pull out the most relevant or necessary concepts, ideas, or facts from the mass of information in a classroom. Students with strong abilities in saliency determination are better able to filter out distractions and focus on the task at hand, for example, when determining the main idea (or gist) of a reading passage, or using relevant information to solve math problems.
Here are some strategies for enhancing saliency determination.
- Give students outlines to help them preview the most important information in a lecture, reading assignment or lesson.
- Use colors, highlighters, and/or graphics to draw attention to the relevancy of information.
- Help students use color coding as an effective organizing strategy themselves. For example, a routine can be established in class (e.g., green for main idea, red for details in reading; blue for essential information in math word problems, etc.) that students can integrate into their own note-taking.
- Provide students with background noise to filter out distractions in the classroom.
- State the objectives of a lesson or purpose of a reading assignment before beginning to delineate most important information.
- Give students a list of questions that they will need to answer at the end of a reading or lecture.
- Connect your presentations to students’ existing information or knowledge.
- To help students focus on important information, use statements such as, “This information will be on the next test...,” “We will cover three important concepts today in class...,” etc.
- Give students direct practice identifying key information (underlining key words, etc. in their textbooks). Provide students with copies from their textbook with the highlighting already started as a guide for them to continue from.
- Have students practice deleting unimportant information in written materials, math and science word problems, etc. Allow students to create their own math and science word problems, in which they insert and delete information, examining the difference between necessary and unnecessary information.
- Stage tasks (break them into smaller steps) to help students focus on the most salient features (e.g., highlight the symbol [+,-] for a particular math calculation before calculating the answer, highlight the most important information in a math story problem).
- Teach students to look at social relationships in the same way they look at new learning situations. Have them talk about the salient features of social interactions, e.g., which are most important when forming friendships, which can obstruct relationships, etc. To further explore the social aspects of saliency determination, talk about the salient features of recurring patterns that take place in school.