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:
- construction of memory requires attribution and inference and therefore can cause distortions as to the correct source,
- articulatory suppression can cause forgetting of non-articulated information,
- physical impairments can cause faulty encoding of information,
- multitasking influences the depth of learning,
- merely trying to remember something can conflict with other memories (Ward); and
- 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.