Seminar ideas: white space

Before a seminar I would prepare a list of numbers, as far as possible meaningful to the students. These might include telephone numbers that they would recognise and simple mathematical series. I would arrange these in two formats — one (as shown on the left below) formatted in the usual style for legal documents, the other (on the right) more conveniently presented. But the numbers were identical.

16 32 64

999 911

0207 242 1222

0207 242 1333

10 20 30 40 50

(repeat once)

I would make multiple copies of each set and fold the slips so they couldn't be read prematurely.

Students on the left of the room would each get a "left" slip; those on the right a "right" slip.

Before I handed them out I explained:

I'm going to pass round slips with numbers on.

Don't open them until I say so (when everyone's got one).

When I say you can, open the slips.

I will give you a minute to remember as many numbers as you can, in the order they are given.

When I say "stop", immediately refold the slip and, before you forget, quickly write down as many of the numbers as you can, in the right order. I'll give you as long as you need to do this.

Don't worry if you do badly: I'm illustrating a point about memory.

Once they'd all written as many of the numbers as they could remember, I asked those on the left if anyone had got beyond the end of the first line; if they had, I asked if they'd got beyond the end of the second line. (I don't think it ever went any further.)

I then asked whoever claimed to have done best to read their numbers out. They had usually gone wrong earlier than they thought. I asked if anyone on the left had done better, and if so, I checked their results.

Then I asked those on the right how many had remembered the whole sequence. Often they all had. I chose someone to read out their numbers, with perfect or near-perfect results (though they might need a prompt before remembering the "repeat once" instruction). Those on the left would be slack-jawed with admiration.

Then I held up a copy of one of the "left" slips, blown up to fill a whole page of A4, and explained that this was what those on the left had had. And then I did the same with a "right" copy. There were gasps as the light dawned. I added that the sequences were identical except for the layout, but one was how lawyers write and the other was how normal people write.

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