How do we manage our working memories?

According to Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), we solve problems using our working memories. Once our working memories are confronted with more than two or three new pieces of knowledge, it stops working effectively. Our ability to think straight depends on managing the information in our working memories. 

Diagram representing the working memory accessing knowledge from the environment (left) and the long term memory (right). 

But we have a continuous stream of information competing for attention. How do our brains keep the distractions out of our working memory? Even in a perfect study room we still need to filter distractions from our own thoughts and memories. A stimulus will trigger not just the relevant information from our long term memories, but also irrelevant ones and misconceptions. For example, if you see a picture of a bicycle, your long term memory will access knowledge about bicycles, experiences you have had with bicycles, ideas about forces and motion. How does your brain control which information your working memory accesses?

Neuropsychology describes a cognitive function called inhibitory control which supports the working memory by acting as a filter (Diamond A, 2013 ‘Executive Functions’).

Diagram representing inhibitory control filtering the information reaching the working memory.

In the Classroom

Psychologists have found that we probably can’t develop or train our inhibitory control, but we can support it. As a teacher, you can reduce external distractions. The less your pupils have to ignore, the easier it will be for their inhibitory control to filter information. Working in a noisy environment or ‘multi-tasking’ is a bad idea. Studying to music is ineffective (unless the music is blocking something even more distracting). 

You should remove anything that goes off on a tangent – shocking examples, movie clips, dramatic images. These are called seductive details and have been shown to hinder learning. Remove extraneous images and information – no matter how interesting – to support your learners.

When faced with ‘seductive details’ pupils perform less well in assessments.

Another simple strategy to support the inhibitory control is to slow down. Providing thinking time leads to improved outcomes for learners, especially when the learning is counter-intuitive (Stop and Think: Learning Counterintuitive Concepts | EEF )

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