Avoiding overfilling working memory

Effective teachers communicate clearly and concisely, with little unnecessary information.

Our ability to maintain information in our attention is limited, and distracting or irrelevant information can disrupt our efforts to process learning content. For example, visual distraction tends to interfere with the connectivity of brain networks that guide memory retrieval, so reducing our ability to recall previously-learnt visual information.

Reading text and listening to speech might be thought of as essentially visual and auditory forms of communication, but reading employs much of the same circuitry we use for understanding speech. This means that presenting verbal explanations at the same time as presenting a lot of text (for example on a PowerPoint slide) is similar to listening to two explanations at the same time, making it difficult to understand either.

A common core set of brain regions (in white in the image below) are activated whether people comprehend written or spoken sentences (Buchweitz et al., 2009). This helps explain why we find it difficult to read text and listen to speech at the same time.

fMRI showing where listening comprehension and reading comprehension increased brain activity occurs in both hemispheres in the brain. Some regions are overlapping, indicated in white.

Image credit

Images from Psychology and Neuroscience, 2, Buchweitz, A. et al., Brain activation for reading and listening comprehension: An fMRI study of modality effects and individual differences in language comprehension, p. 111-123, Figure 1. Cortical areas activated for listening and reading comprehension. Copyright (2009). Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) granted by APA as publisher.

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The Science of Learning

National STEM Learning Centre