Working Memory


Contemporary cognitive research, summarized in Salisbury (1990), has stressed the critical importance of the working memory. Working memory is critically important in language development (Gathercole & Baddeley, 1993) and in reading (Breznitz & Share, 1992); and failures in working memory are often responsible for learning disabilities (Hulme & Mackenzie, 1992). Human beings do all their active thinking and problem solving in working memory. The quality of the input into working memory and of the operations that go on there determine the quality of learning and problem solving. There are three critical phases in the effective use of working memory: (1) getting information correctly into this short-term area, (2) handling the information appropriately while it is there, (3) moving information correctly from working memory to long-term storage, and using the information in working memory to generate some kind of output.


First, it is necessary to get information correctly into the working memory. As the previous section stated, we move information from the sensory register to the working memory by focusing attention on it. Teachers can facilitate this transfer by doing something to direct attention: for example, by highlighting key words, by pointing to crucial items, or by saying, "Look at this!" or "This is important!" In addition to focusing attention on information in a sensory register, we can bring information into short-term memory through the process of retrieval from long-term memory. This process will be discussed later in this chapter.

Second, it is necessary to handle the information appropriately while it is in short-term memory. The two critical limitations on handling information in working memory are the small number of pieces of information it can handle and the short duration of time during which information can remain there. Most adults can retain about seven items of information at a time for just a few seconds. (If you can remember information for longer than twenty seconds, you have probably rapidly - and weakly - encoded it without even realizing it.) There are five main ways to deal with these limitations in the capacity of working memory:

  1. Feed into the working memory only small amounts of new information at a time. Learners can do this by focusing their attention effectively.

  2. Clear unneeded, old information out of the working memory to make room for the new information. Our brains perform this service for us automatically - almost as soon as we stop focusing attention on the information.

  3. "Chunk" several pieces of information together, so that several individual pieces comprise a single chunk. This strategy will be discussed later in this section.

  4. Efficiently and rapidly shuttle information into and out of working memory. This requires retrieval, which is discussed in conjunction with long-term memory later in this chapter.

  5. Use additional devices to supplement human memory. For example, if we record a phone number on a piece of paper, we don't have to store it in memory. If a teacher projects a map or a diagram on a screen, then it takes little effort for the learners to bring it into working memory - they can just look at any part of the image in front of them.



The strategy of "chunking" requires further explanation. It involves combining separate pieces of information into a single, more complex piece of information, so that we can store more items. For example, it would be very difficult to try to retain in working memory the following series of numbers:




The difficulty arises because there are eleven items (digits) in this series. (The numbers are also meaningless - and this problem will be discussed later.) By chunking, we could convert this to six items (one- or two-digit numbers):



19 - 00 - 33 - 77 - 92 - 4



If you really wanted to do so, you could memorize this list of six items. This series can be chunked further by converting it to the following format:






You can now recognize this as an ordinary "900" telephone number. Most people would chunk this as four pieces of information: "1-900", "337", "79", and "24." Since telephone dialing systems display both numbers and letters, we can replace some of the numbers with letters to get the following:



1-900 ED PSYCH



This is a mythical number for a tutoring service for aspiring educational psychologists. It now consists of two chunks of information: "900 number" and "Educational Psychology." Without looking back at this number, you would easily be able to retain it in working memory long enough to write it down. Of course, since the information is now meaningful, it may be easier to just move it to long-term memory and not bother to write it down at all. (Remember: This is a phony number. Do not waste your time calling it. If you need help with your educational psychology, read this book or the accompanying workbook.)

If you think about it for a moment, chunking really involves an interaction of long-term and working memory. We were able to chunk only because we have perceived meaning (that is, we have made connections that made sense) among some of the numbers. This simple concept of chunking lies at the basis of effective thought; it is a key component in the process of language and effective thinking. Language is really nothing more than a sophisticated form of chunking. What if we had to say, "I brought into my working memory through the things near the top of my head an image of a small animal moving several feet off the ground into a large plant that extended about several feet from the ground into the air," instead of "I saw the bird fly into the tree"? By knowing the concepts "seeing," "bird," "flying," and "tree," I can chunk the information so that I can easily handle it in my working memory. And as long as you share the same language system with me, you can chunk the information in the same way and easily fit it into your own working memory.


Another way to deal with more than seven items at a time is to move some items into and out of the working storage area very rapidly. We do this so frequently and so automatically that we don't even realize we are doing it. In order for this shuttling process to work effectively, the process of storing and retrieving particular information in long-term memory must have become thoroughly familiar - so familiar that it can be performed without requiring any effort at all on the part of working memory.

Psychologists use the term automaticity to refer to the ability to chunk or to move information between long-term and working memory so rapidly and efficiently that the processes require practically no attention on the part of the learner. Automaticity is absolutely essential to human learning and information processing: without it, a huge bottleneck occurs that inhibits learning. The main process by which learners develop automaticity is called overlearning. The importance of overlearning as part of the retrieval phase of learning was discussed in chapter 3 of this book.

By the way, what was that phony long-distance telephone number for tutoring assistance in educational psychology?


There are three problems that can occur with information in the working memory:


  1. Getting information correctly into this short-term area. This problem is solved by maintaining a continuing, appropriate focus to monitor sensory activities and to retrieve relevant information from long-term memory. The learner can achieve this focus by having relevant information active in the working memory and easily accessible in long-term storage.

  2. Handling the information appropriately while it is in working memory. Information will fade from the working memory unless it is continually rehearsed. Rehearsal refers not only to the rote recital of information, but to any strategy that involves constant focus on the information - for example, using the information for a constructive purpose. To support information in working memory, it is often useful to employ supplementary strategies, such as notes and diagrams, to which the learner can refer before deciding what to transfer to long-term storage.

  3. Moving information correctly from working memory to long-term storage. This problem is solved by encoding the information. Encoding occurs most efficiently when the learner actively works with the information in ways that relate it to other information already in long-term memory.



What to Do to Help the Learner Transfer Information Correctly From the Sensory Register to the Working Memory


  1. Point out specifically the important elements in the presentation.

  2. Minimize factors that will interfere with attention.

  3. Repeat the presentation more than a single time. It's actually unlikely that any information will be transferred perfectly on a single occasion, and redundancy will reduce errors. (Repetition is also useful for other reasons.)

  4. Check to verify whether the information has been attended to and transferred correctly.

What to Do to Help the learner accurately retain the information in working memory as long as it is needed to work with it.


  1. Keep the number of pieces of information small enough to work with. Either present information in small segments or employ chunking to convert larger amounts into smaller number of pieces of information.

  2. Keep attention constantly focused on the information under consideration. For example, if the information is projected onto a screen or written on a page in front of the student, this minimizes the demand on working memory.

  3. Rehearse the information often while the student is working on it. Rephrase key points often enough to keep them active in working memory.

  4. Allow the learner to have access to the information whenever it is needed. If the information is not in long-term memory or cannot be retrieved, it is foolish to deny the learner access to this information.

  5. Move the information to long-term memory as soon as possible, and help the learner retrieve the information to working memory whenever it is needed. Help the learner retrieve the information easily so that it is almost as good as present in working memory.



Chapter 3 used the term selective perception to refer to the conscious focus of attention on the essential features of an instructional presentation. This focus is essential if effective thinking and learning are to occur. Repeated practice is an effective technique for enhancing the effectiveness of short-term memory. Repeated practice is likely to result in overlearning, and learners can make their working memories more efficient by making basic skills and information so familiar (automatic) that they require only minimal attention from the working memory.



The Play's the Thing!


Imagine a situation in which a student is studying Shakespeare. Assume that the student is reading a book in which the author is trying to argue that Hamlet's tragic flaw is not procrastination but rather impulsiveness. Any student who has efficiently stored the proper information in long-term memory can easily read and understand the following sentence:



"Thus, when Romeo at the climax kills Tibalt,

his tragic flaw of rashness is clear."

(Grebanier, 1960, page 189).

The student can keep this information (about a different play) in working memory while reflecting on the author's next point: Hamlet likewise rashly killed Polonius. The student can then mull over the author's main point and come to a conclusion like this: "Omigosh! Hamlet's not procrastinating at all. His whole problem is that he's impulsive!" (Note that at this point, Romeo is probably gone from the student's working memory.) If convinced of this new insight, the student could move this new piece of information to long-term memory. More likely, the student would need more convincing and would move more information into and out of working memory to further clarify this issue. This whole thought process is going to work only if the student had been able to efficiently chunk key concepts like "Romeo," "Tybalt," "tragic flaw," "rashness," "procrastination," "Hamlet," and "Polonius."



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