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Working Memory and Cognitive Load

We all depend on our working memory – our ability to hold information in mind and use it – everyday.  Working memory is just one part of the chain we need to learn, but it is an important part.

From research, our current understanding of working memory is:

  • Working memory performance correlates with academic success
  • Working memory has a capacity of 7 +/- 2 items
  • Children have lower capacity which increases over time and peaks around age 30; average capacities are:
    • At age 5,  3-4 item capacity
    • At age 15,  5-6 item capacity
    • At age 30, 7 +/- 2 item capacity
  • We have two modes of holding information in working memory:
    • Phonological loop (repeating audio, such as a phone number, in your head)
    • Visuo-spatial sketchpad (your mental whiteboard where you might “see” the phone number in your mind)
  • The duration of “holding” information in working memory is a matter of seconds
  • Sleep is essential to working memory function
  • Information must pass through working memory on its way to long term memory

Attention and working memory are closely linked.  Students who show signs of not “paying attention” may actually have working memory difficulties.  For example, a student who does not finish tasks may not be distracted, but may instead be unable to remember the instructions.

Cognitive load refers to how much working memory is available.  For example, a student using working memory to infer the meaning of a word in your instructions has less working memory available to process and retain the instructions themselves.  External factors such as fatigue, anxiety, or stereotype threat can also contribute to cognitive load and decrease working memory capacity.

There are several signs that a student may be coping with limited working memory. He may:

  • Lose his place in a task or abandon complicated tasks
  • Forget verbal information
  • Skip words when writing or copying
  • Have difficulty with switching between sources of information
  • Perform below expectations
  • Seem distracted

Ways to help reduce cognitive load:

  • Provide written instructions for complicated tasks.
  • Repeat information frequently.
  • Be mindful of prior knowledge.  Provide a context in advance of new information if needed.
  • Be mindful of vocabulary.  Try to use terms that students already know or treat new terms as an essential piece of new information that must be assimilated before they can be used.
  • Encourage students to write things down, use memory aids, or ask for help

Be aware your requirements on cognitive load.  If you answer “yes” to the questions below, your students may “max out” their cognitive load and be less able to achieve learning goals.

  • Do the students have a solid context to anchor the new information?
  • Are you using a significant number of new terms?
  • Are students tired, stressed, or anxious?
  • Are you limiting your presentation of information to verbal communication?

What’s the one thing I can do to use this in my classroom?

Consider the cognitive load on your students and act accordingly.  Introduce new terms before they have to be used.  Provide contextual background before introducing a new concept.  Provide information in multiple formats rather than relying on verbal communication only.

Links to Learn More:

Resources and Research

  • Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T. P. (2007). Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide. London: Harcourt Assessment.
  • Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load During Problem solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 257-285.

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