4 Working Memory ‘Hacks’ Every Teacher Needs To Know



Understanding and retaining information involves more than just cramming facts into your brain. Mayer and Moreno (2003) describe meaningful learning as a deep grasp of the material, including paying attention to important details, mentally organising it into a coherent structure, and integrating it with what is already known. To be sure – meaningful learning demands serious cognitive effort!

Our job as educators is to make learning stick without overwhelming the brain. 

In the vast landscape of our minds, there’s Long-Term Memory (LTM), a knowledge repository with seemingly infinite space. Think of it as the library that holds the collective wisdom of a lifetime. Then we have Working Memory (WM), a mental workspace where new information meets existing knowledge from LTM. WM is like the engine room of learning, but there’s a catch – research tells us that when tasked with remembering several items in a short period, our working memory tends to falter. It has constraints—like juggling too many balls at once. Plus, there’s the issue of information fading away over time.

Now, imagine the classroom as a dance floor. The goal is for students not just to memorise steps but to waltz with the new information gracefully, intertwine it with what they already know, and store it in the grand library that is LTM.

But, here’s the challenge: introduce too many new steps at once, or try to develop elaborate new routines based on poorly-remembered ones, and it turns into a chaotic mess. No one wants a dance floor disaster; it could lead to misconceptions and hinder future learning.

To help us meet this challenge, there are some practical tools we can employ to help meaningful learning occur.

#1: Worked Examples

These are step-by-step demonstrations that show not only the result but also how to get there. The goal is to help students understand new information without overloading their working memory. As your students get the hang of things, the detailed explanations should gradually fade away.

#2: Scaffolding

When worked examples don’t fit, scaffolding comes into play. It involves using cues, prompts, instructions, definitions and templates to guide students through processes, making it easier to focus on the essential information. Like with worked examples, the support should decrease as understanding grows.

#3: Dual Coding

Dual Coding Theory suggests that working memory has separate channels for visual/spatial and auditory information. Teachers can leverage this by presenting information in multiple formats, like text, images, or diagrams, to enhance learning without overwhelming working memory.

Here are some strategies suggested by Mayer and Moreno.

  • Offloading: Don’t bombard the brain with visuals and text simultaneously. Spread the load by converting text into spoken commentary.
  • Segmenting: Avoid overwhelming the brain with a flood of information. Break it down into manageable segments, giving the brain time to process each piece.
  • Pretraining: Prepare the brain by offering a preview of what’s to come like providing a sneak peek before the main event.

However, a word of caution: too much non-essential information can lead to overload. Avoid extraneous detail and keep instructional materials streamlined for a smoother learning experience.

#4: Chunking

Our long-term memory isn’t just for isolated facts; it can store complete processes as well. By practising and repeating certain tasks, we can create ‘chunks’ of information that can be effortlessly recalled. This reduces the load on your working memory, leaving more space for meaningful learning.

In summary, the key is to present new information in a way that doesn’t overload the brain. Whether it is through examples, scaffolding, dual coding, or chunking, these hacks will lead to more meaningful learning for your students. 

That’s all for now. Check back soon for more.

Thanks for reading!

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