Memory: working and long-term

Cognitive psychology research has identified working memory as a key concept in understanding how we learn. Working memory can be described as the systems in our brains that hold short-term (i.e., temporary) information while using that information to accomplish a task. A simple example would be trying to remember a phone number after we have heard it from a friend or over the phone. If the number is given to us in two stages – for example, the first three digits and then the next group – our working memory has to try and remember the second group while we write down the first. The first three digits are stored in our working memory temporarily. Experiments indicate that we can only hold a few items in our short term memory and for a very limited time only. Unless we use a strategy to try and remember this information it will simply disappear (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Transfer of information from short-term to long-term storage. “Figure 7.6” from Psychology in Your Life, Second Edition by Sarah Grison, Todd F. Heatherton, and Michael S. Gazzaniga. Copyright 2017, 2015 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Using one or more strategies to do this is what we call memorisation – but how do we improve the ability to remember? John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is an important concept here – indeed, in January 2017 Dylan Wiliam tweeted that he had “come to the conclusion that Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) was the single most important thing for teachers to know.” This is certainly a bold claim, but elsewhere Wiliam has been more specific about its significance:

The important point about Sweller’s cognitive load theory is not the limited capacity of human working memory— this has been known for decades. The innovative finding of CLT is that learning tasks that require cognitive loads that exhaust students’ working memory may be successfully completed, but that no long-term learning results. In other words, students can satisfactorily complete a learning task, but not learn what the task is intended to teach…

Wiliam (2019)

Cognitive Load Theory shows us that working memory can be extended in two key ways. The first is the recognition that the mind processes visual and auditory information separately. This is sometimes called the Modality Effect and recent interest in Alan Paivio’s Dual Coding theory reflects this. The second is that working memory treats a chunk of information that the brain already knows as one item, the ‘size’ of which is dependent on how deeply we know or understand this information.

So new learning that is connected to existing knowledge will be more easily assimilated and is also able to increase the capacity of the working memory and aid storage in our long term memories.

One particularly interesting finding is described by researchers Bjork and Bjork (2014) like this:

Basically, any time that you, as a learner, look up an answer or have somebody tell or show you something that you could, drawing on current cues and your past knowledge, generate instead, you rob yourself of a powerful learning opportunity

In a memorable phrase, Willingham calls memory “the residue of thought”. Simply, you remember what you think about. This is the first of three key principles that Willingham suggests can guide students wishing to improve their memories. The second principle is that memories may not be accessed due to missing or ambiguous clues – for example, when we can’t remember someone’s name but we can remember which letter of the alphabet it begins with. Willingham’s third principle is that we tend to believe that our learning is more thorough than it really is.

As we know from experience, the evidence suggests that students are not absolutely passive sponges, nor does learning have to be active all the time, but being comfortable with both styles and knowing how to find a balance is important as a teacher. This theme will develop in later sections, after we have recapped our understanding of CAT4.