Working Memory- It Only Stays There for a Minute or so…

Most cognitive psychologists agree on the concept of working memory and understanding how it works is rather important for teachers. It would also be great if children understood the implications of how their own working memory operated. They could choose to further develop their own learning attitude to enable them to become better learners.

The particular issue I want to address is not working memory’s limited capacity but the fact that working memory can retain information for a very limited time, about one minute at best.

One minute is not a great deal of time. So let’s picture a classroom where all children are listening attentively. If they are not the piece of information the teacher is about to give may not even get into working memory!

The teacher states, “The chemical symbol for oxygen is O”. Ok. That gets into working memory. Unless something happens within a minute to move that piece of information into long term memory the information is lost. One minute! Yep, one minute.

Now, fortunately the teacher has spoken the information about the chemical symbol and, critically, will have written it up, or powerpointed (Is that a word? … It is now!) it or some other visual display – indicated where oxygen is in the periodic table chart on the wall. That gives students, at least, a reference to use when they move to the stage that formally moves the information into long term memory and begins to secure it.

Also, super fortunately, or brains will try to automatically move the information into working memory. We are all different but this might be what happens in my brain and your brain when the teacher tells you about the symbol for oxygen.

You will link the idea to the already stored memory for the word symbol, which will have lots of links to other schema, mind maps your brain has previously created some time in the past, which is activated when it recognises the word symbol. Perhaps you also have heard of oxygen. Another link for the data stored in a very fragile way in your working memory. Great if you have a brain map for chemical symbols and that will contain references to chemicals having symbols. You will recognise that the start of the word “Oxygen” has the symbol “O”. Your teacher will be a great teacher if he writes the word Oxygen on the board with an upper case “O”. Teachers can be very supportive of this learning stuff!

To start to secure the information in long term memory we now need to get students to use and munch and think about the information as the more links there are to already existing brain maps the stronger the memory will be. Link it in as many and as varied different ways and your students will genuinely not be able to say, “Don’t know”, when you ask them, next lesson, “So, what is the chemical symbol for Oxygen?”. Please note, you can’t say Oxygen and imply the upper case letter but you can write “Oxygen” on the board to trigger some of the brain maps the student previously used to store the information. Information becomes knowledge.

This also gives some insight into why bright children are bright. Bright, clever, is a function of the number and the complexity of the interlinking of brain maps.The more you have and the better they are linked, the brighter you are and you can learn more stuff, more rapidly and more securely.

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