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Long-Term Memory and Working Memory

It is important to appreciate the different roles played by long-term memory and working memory in how we learn. Humans cannot simply absorb new information like a computer download. We have to consciously process it first and our ability to do this is limited.

It is important to appreciate the different roles played by long-term memory and working memory in how we learn. Humans cannot simply absorb new information like a computer download. We have to consciously process it first and our ability to do this is limited.

Long-Term Memory and Working Memory

Our long-term memory has a huge capacity. It is like the hard drive on a powerful computer and stores everything we can remember (and a lot that we are not aware of too). Working memory is what we consciously use to process information. Working memory has a limited capacity. It’s a little like random-access memory (RAM) in a computer and it is what you are using to comprehend this text. It is temporary and its content can easily be displaced. For example, if you are told a telephone number but are interrupted by someone else before you can write it down, you will probably be unable to recall the sequence of digits. This is because the number was not transferred to long-term memory and its place in working memory was taken by new information provided by the interrupter.

Albert Einstein was reputed to ask his wife not to talk to him while he was thinking. He was afraid that if he attended to her words, he would lose the thread of a fresh idea that was only in his working memory. Few of us possess Einstein’s thinking ability (it is thought likely that he had a larger than average working memory). But we can be distracted while we think just the same.

Learning and Working Memory

We learn best when the pace of a learning experience matches the capacity of our working memory to process it. Too little and we can become bored. Too much and we may be overloaded.

What Does This Mean For Trainers and Learning Designers?

An understanding of the contrast between the almost unlimited size of long-term memory and the highly restricted access to it through working memory is crucial to planning and designing learning that achieves desired outcomes. Working memory capacity is effectively set for most adults but, as mentioned in the video, the educationally purposeful use of visual materials can increase its capacity. This relates mainly to images, as the visual display of text aid is processd through the same channel as spoken language. We will be looking more closely at how the visual section of working memory can be used to enhance learning in Week 3.

Talking Point

 

  • Are there any areas of training you offer that might be enhanced by a planned use of both working memory channels (language and images)?
  • Is there any training you are aware of that may overload working memory at times? If so, how could you plan to distribute the load more evenly?
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