It’s important to understand the characteristics of working memory when you’re designing something that requires mental effort. Without adapting learning experiences to the learner’s cognitive architecture, instructional design is hit or miss.
Current research in this area demonstrates that working memory (a theoretical structure) is dynamic and flexible.
Working Memory Basics
- Working memory used to be called short-term memory. It was redefined to focus on its functionality rather than its duration. Some cognitive psychologists, however, differentiate between working and short-term memory. They refer to short-term memory as the brief storage of information. And working memory as involved with both storage and manipulation of information.
- Working memory can be thought of as the equivalent of being mentally online. It refers to the temporary workspace where we manipulate and process information.
- No one physical location in the brain seems to be responsible for working memory capacity. But several parts of the brain seem to contribute to this cognitive structure.
Working Memory Capacity
- Working memory is characterized by a small capacity. It is thought to hold four to five elements of new information at one time. (Some still stick to Miller’s 7 plus or minus 2 bits.) I think it’s always better for learners, particularly novices, to go for the lower number.
- Because learning experiences typically involve new information, the capacity of working memory makes it difficult for many people to assimilate more than around four to five bits of information simultaneously.
- The capacity of working memory depends on the category of the elements or chunks as well as their features. For example, we can hold more digits in working memory than letters and more short words than long words.
- The limitations on working memory disappear when someone works with information from long-term memory (permanent storage). Information from long-term memory is organized into schemata. Schemata are higher order structures composed of multiple elements that help to reduce the overload on working memory.
Working Memory Duration
- New information in working memory is temporary. It is either encoded into long-term memory or it decays or is replaced.
- Unless it is actively attended to or rehearsed, information in working memory has a short duration of around 10-15 seconds (Goldstein).
- Similar to the capacity issue, it takes mental effort to hold information in working memory for an extended time and can also be a cause of cognitive overwhelm.
Interactions with Long-term Memory
- There is a continuous transfer of of information between long-term memory and working memory—both retrieval and transfer.
- Information is retrieved from long-term memory into working memory in order to make sense out of new information.
- Information that we attend to and integrate into our knowledge structures is transferred or encoded into long-term memory.
- Current research demonstrates that individual differences in working memory capacity may account for differences in performance of information processing tasks, like reading and note-taking.
- In studies with children, those who have a poor ability to store material over brief periods of time (difficulties with working memory) fail to progress normally in tasks related to literacy.
- An individual’s developmental age and level of expertise probably account for differences in working memory. For example, facilitating learning with certain strategies can be helpful for novices but detrimental to experts. See Novice Versus Expert Design Strategies.
- Cognitive load refers to the demands placed on working memory in terms of storage and information processing.
- Intrinsic load is caused by the nature of the learning task and extraneous load refers to the demands caused by the format of the instruction.
- Cognitive load theory states that traditional instructional techniques can overload working memory because they don’t account for intrinsic and extraneous load. Instructional designers can facilitate learning by considering and accommodating different loads.
- Germane load refers to the demands placed on working memory when learners are acquiring new knowledge. It involves conscious cognitive processing to construct schemata. Increasing the germane load can most likely assist the learning process.
- E. Bruce Goldstein. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience. Wadsworth Publishing, 2010
- Patricia L. Smith and Tillman J Ragan. Instructional Design, Wiley, 2004.
- Tamara van Gog et. al., Instructional Design for Advanced Learners. ETR&D, Vol. 53, No. 3, 2005, pp. 73–81.
- Wolfgang Schnotz and Christian Ku?rschner. A Reconsideration of Cognitive Load Theory. Educ Psychol Rev (2007) 19:469–508
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