How working memory affects teaching and what you can do about it

Filling the pail

Many psychologists accept variations on a model of the mind that consists of a limited ‘working’ or ‘short-term’ memory and an effectively limitless ‘long-term’ memory. This model is the basis of learning theories such as cognitive load theory.

The working memory is the mind’s sketchpad where we complete conscious and effortful thinking. However, once we have sufficiently practised something we can simply and easily retrieve the steps from long-term memory without really thinking about it. The classic example of this kind of ‘automatisation’ is driving to work and not being able to remember much about it.

The limitations of working memory have been used as a basis to argue against discovery and other implicit forms of learning. However, I am also of the view that these limitations have profound effects on the act of teaching.

How does working memory affect teaching?

Recently, I was teaching a Year 12 maths…

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