What Educators Need to Know about Working Memory

Embed from Getty Images


Working memory is a process in the brain where meaning is constructed from information received and potential self-regulation of memory occurs. It also serves as a temporary storage device. Working memory is limited to the amount of information it can hold and the duration it can remember. According to Miller (1956), humans are capable of remembering only seven plus-or-minus two pieces of information in our memory at any given time without the help of learning strategies. If self-regulation of the information is not engaged, working memory is limited to three seconds duration in the auditory registers (Ward, 2010). Ward notes that young children’s ability to remember information is more stringent than that of adults. This age difference and the other limitations should be considered when designing and/or delivering instruction. For example, instruction of content should also include strategies to help students learn (e.g., mnemonics).

Baddeley and Hitch (1974; Baddeley, 1986) developed a model for working memory to explain the internal processing of information. Its main components are sensory register, working memory, and long-term memory. The subcomponents are an executive control system, an articulatory loop, and a visual-spatial sketchpad. The executive control system selects information, plans, and then transfers information to long-term memory. The articulatory loop consists of the auditory and articulatory processes such as rehearsal. The visual-spatial sketchpad consists of the visual and spatial processes, which can also include rehearsal. An important caveat for educators is that some learners don’t intrinsically know to select only the important information for long-term storage.  Therefore, it would be helpful for educators to preview documents and highlight key points prior to assigning the reading.

Numerous factors and self-regulatory processes affect working memory. Self-regulation processes include rehearsal, selection of important information, and metacognitive strategies (e.g., making it meaningful, organizing, visualization, and elaboration). Self-regulation aids working memory by stretching the time the information is held in storage, as well as enhancing transfer to and retrieval from long-term memory. A helpful example of self-regulation would be self-directed speech. Students might not think this is helpful, so an educator should model this behavior or otherwise teach it explicitly. The National Research Council (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999) defines metacognition as taking “the form of an internal conversation.”

Here are some factors that hinder working memory:

  1. construction of memory requires attribution and inference and therefore can cause distortions as to the correct source,
  2. articulatory suppression can cause forgetting of non-articulated information,
  3. physical impairments can cause faulty encoding of information,
  4. multitasking influences the depth of learning,
  5. merely trying to remember something can conflict with other memories (Ward); and
  6. cognitive overload can occur when information is presented with distracting enhancements like background music or elaborative fonts.

There are different types of memories: declarative (episodic and semantic) and non-declarative memory (implicit) (Ward). Episodic memory refers to a person’s personal events, whereas semantic memory refers to conceptual knowledge. Ward stated that episodic memory is stronger than semantic memory; therefore, it’s imperative to teach students metacognitive strategies for encoding conceptual knowledge into long-term memory. These strategies should be embedded in the curriculum after they’re presented through direct instruction.

Note: For more information on the information processing system as it relates to instructional design see my blog on The Basics.


Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory: Theory and practice. London, England: Oxford University Press.

Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47-90). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Bransford, J. D., Brown A. L., & Cocking R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind,experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus-or-minus two: Some limits on ourcapacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97

Ward, J. (2010). The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. New York, NY: Psychological Press.

Author: teacherrogers

Content developer, instructional designer, trainer, and researcher

5 thoughts on “What Educators Need to Know about Working Memory”

  1. Hi Sandra,

    I am an elementary school teacher and have just started studying toward my instructional design degree. My current course focuses on learning theories and this has resulted in my reflecting on how I, as well as my students, learn. When working with younger students I find it important to teach them different strategies to assist in their learning. Mnemonics is very successful when they are required to memorize a sequence of events such as the order of the planets from the sun or order of operations in math problem solving. It is also helpful to relate new information to prior knowledge (making real life connections) as this helps them retain the knowledge in long-term memory. I also model how to extract the important information and organize it in a way that makes it easier to understand, e.g. graphic organizers and flow charts (they can use pictures and/or words, whichever way helps them make more sense of what they are learning). When I study, I find it necessary to reread, organize/write down the important or relevant information and relate it to prior knowledge. We all have our own strategies and I attempt to aid the students in finding ways that make it easier for them to retain new information.



    1. Hi Sandy,
      I’m glad to hear that you’re teaching your students mnemonics, selection for self-regulation, and to make real life connections to help them with their learning. It sounds like you do a lot of cognitive modeling, too. You didn’t mention it, but pre-reading is a great way to prime the brain for the new information. As a former elementary teacher myself, I remember teaching students to do that through “book walks”. It’s also very effective for adult learners, too. I was amazed with how much it helped me read at the graduate level. Keep up the good work!


  2. Teacherrogers,

    I found this information to be very enlightening. As a student learning more about learning processes and how they affect teaching styles this was very helpful. Based on your blog name I would assume you are a teacher? If so, how has this information impacted your teaching style(s)? If you are not/have not been a teacher, how would you expect this information to affect your teaching style?

    Thank you


    1. Hi Marilyn,
      Thanks for your kind comment. I consider myself a teacher-as-action-researcher and try research based processes to improve the learning environment in my classes. I also try them out for myself, as a learner. In my PhD program, time is of the essence with the massive amount of readings and assignments. I’ve been applying various learning theories to my self-study. For example, the study-test-test-test method works well for me. As an adult learner, I can make connections to many things to build on what I read once. Then I begin to practice testing myself over and over. I even give myself pre-tests, so I can select and focus on my weak areas of understanding.


Thanks for visiting my blog! Please leave a message.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.