Helping Students to “Work” Their Working Memory

Posted September 28, 2017

By Melissa Luis and James Martiney

What is an effective teacher?

Ask this question to twenty people and you will get twenty different answers. Some will say that effective teachers are subject matter experts, others will emphasize communication skills such as being clear, and still others will point to personality characteristics such as empathy, warmth, and enthusiasm (Evertson and Emmer, 2013; Keller, Neumann, and Fischer, 2013; Madsen, 2003). A common thread weaves through all descriptions of effective teaching: the ability to modify expert content knowledge based on specific student needs, known as “pedagogical content knowledge” (Shulman, 1987). Understanding working memory can help instructors be more effective.


What is working memory?

The idea of neuroanatomical and internal psychological mechanisms being responsible for the learning process has advanced rapidly over the last few decades (Ashcraft and Radvansky, 2010). Students need to actively process the information delivered during instruction, which then leads to retention (Anderson, Reder, and Simon, 1996). This is why, for example, it is so easy to be entertained by TED talks, but more difficult to learn their content in a deep way. It is because there are few opportunities for passive learners to engage with the material. How do learners process information and content? The answer is through a complex system called working memory.

Working memory can be described as the “workbench” where information is temporarily stored and actively processed (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974). Information that comes in through the senses must undergo active processing or it will be lost. This is why you don’t remember every name of every shampoo you pass in the supermarket—you simply have not processed them. Working memory is also a small workbench; only seven to nine chunks of information can be stored for upwards of 15 seconds (Woolfolk, 2016).


Sounds quite scary if you think about! If information is not actively processed it will cease to exist, and the learning process will stop dead in its tracks. Before we conclude that all hope is lost, let’s briefly examine the most accepted working memory model (Baddeley’s model) and how it works.

Baddeley’s Model of Working Memory

Allen Baddeley, a pioneer psychologist working on the memory system, developed the idea that the initial stages of the memory system are complex. He proposed that conscious activation of information is crucial for our ability to understand what we are thinking and learning in the moment; only then is information moved into long-term memory where it is permanently stored (Baddeley, 2007). Baddeley’s model emphasizes the importance of paying attention during learning as well as the relationship between our hearing (“phonological loop”, PL) and sight (“visuospatial sketchpad”, VS) in the learning process.

Imagine that working memory is like a machine with gears. The central executive (CE) could be described as the “boss” of the working memory system, akin to a computer’s CPU. The central executive controls the processing of information into the auditory (PL) and visual (VS) “gears”. The CE uses a manager, the episodic buffer (EB), to determine how much oil (prior knowledge) to pull from long-term memory. This complex interaction between the CE and the EB allows the PL and VS gears to spin in harmony (Baddeley, 2007). When the system is working smoothly and there are no other complications, learning is enhanced and information can be easily encoded and stored in long-term memory.

How does Baddeley’s Model of Working Memory relate to our teaching?

Proper presentation of information and content knowledge is critical for successful student learning. Furthermore, the actual delivery of the content—basically, how the instructor approaches pedagogy-- is crucial for students’ processing of information. For example, if the instructor uses text-heavy slides, or reads from the slides, the phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad “gears” will not work properly as the central executive is taxed by the need to draw too much information from long-term memory. Just like in any machine with faulty mechanisms, the learning process will, unfortunately, be corrupted or even stop. In the remainder of this post, we will suggest ways to modify the delivery of your content knowledge in order to “grease the gears” of your student’s working memory. Four different techniques will be discussed: relevancy, storytelling, repetition and chunking.

Technique #1 - Relevancy

We know that when information is presented in a way that is relevant to students, their focus and attention will increase, along with their motivation (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Relevancy assists cognitive load by not taxing the thinking process (working memory) with information that is not seen as valuable. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a mismatch between instructor enthusiasm and student relevancy. Take, for instance, an instructor who is excited by the nuances of Pavlov’s dogs. Nothing could be more thrilling than the intricacies of conditioned and unconditioned responses. To many students, however, a historical experiment involving meat powder seems remote from their daily concerns. Elaborating on Pavlov’s work by using more relevant examples of conditioning such as auditory alerts for text messages, or radar-based traffic tickets, might help students lean forward in their chairs.

How can instructors increase relevancy so attention is increased and working memory “works” more smoothly? Here are a few ways that instructors can increase relevancy when teaching students and integrate relevancy techniques within their course design.

  • Reflection Assignments (i.e. “Exit Slips”): Reflection is a deeper level strategy that allows students to examine what they have learned and how it relates to them. Reflection assignments can take many forms, including "Exit Slips", where students write down what they learned or enjoyed before class time concludes. Students who study prejudice, for example, may come to learn more about their own.
  • Interest-Based (Student-driven) Assignments: When students can choose their approach to an assignment or the type of assignment they wish to complete, the task becomes inherently more meaningful. Choice also strengthens motivation and increases self-regulation.
  • Relate content to use in the real world: When content can be explained in a way that emphasizes its importance and relevancy in everyday life, students tend to be more interested. For example, students can certainly relate to the Attribution Theory when it comes to failing a class or a test in college. Helping students to identify the connection between personal decisions that were made in the face of failure could facilitate a deeper understanding of the theory.   

Technique #2 - Storytelling

Storytelling has historically been an effective tool in knowledge construction and learning (Hung, Hwang, and Huang, 2012). Stories create images and evoke relevancy in listeners, which can aid in the processing of information and benefits attention. Furthermore, stories allow for content to be presented in an organized manner, further alleviating cognitive load and allowing for working memory to process information more smoothly (Robin, 2008). The bystander effect is a great example of how storytelling can be used to help students process a complex social psychological phenomena. Although the events that surround the Kitty Genovese murder are still being called into question, presenting a story format to explain indifference and diffusion of responsibility certainly captures attention and engages students in active processing as they imagine how people could turn away from someone in need. Storytelling can be integrated into classroom and lecture time in many ways. Here are a few examples of storytelling:

  • Use multimedia (pictures and videos) in classrooms: Digital stories help students to create images and link these images to pertinent content as well as increasing attention. The statement “A picture speaks 1000 words” summarizes how powerful images can be. Integrate stories around the images, which can help for deeper processing and retention.
  • Student-driven storytelling assignments and tasks: Students can be great storytellers as well. Encourage students to create stories around content and integrate how the content is relevant through a story format. For example, students studying the fundamental attribution error might gather in small groups to exchange tales of times that they overlooked situational influences when making attributions.
  • Relate content to personal experiences in the field: Most instructors are also current or former professionals. When teaching content to students, relate personal experiences of how the content relates to the field. A former school psychologist may relate the Ecological Systems Theory to a professional experience in the field when teaching about social-emotional development and its effects on school achievement. Key points are brought to life as students create images of the experience and connect to the story being told. 

Technique #3 - Repetition

Repetition can be very effective and allows for information to stay active in working memory (Harris, Rogers, and Qualls, 1998). McDaniel, Howard and Einstein (2009) found that repeating small pieces of information as we read (reciting) enhances comprehension and retention of the information. With this in mind, it is imperative that we not overload working memory and instead present small pieces of information that are repeated or paraphrased throughout the class time. For many students, however, the idea of repetition can seem boring even if it is effective. Here are a few ways that instructors can use repetition in interesting ways.

  • Have students paraphrase content: Putting information into one’s own words helps increase processing and retention. When students must summarize information learned, it also increases comprehension. One method of doing this is in pairs. Each student can read a section and summarize it for the other, or both can summarize the same section and compare their summaries.
  • Reciprocal Questioning: Students join partners and use the content to engage in an ask/answer format. Students must reflect on their own knowledge to answer their partner’s question and vice versa. This allows for information to be retrieved and then maintained and discussed, which increases the likelihood of retention. For example, students studying childhood development might generate a list of questions concerning imitation. These might include questions about basic definitions of terms like “imitation” and “over-imitation.” They might also include questions about verbal versus behavioral imitation.
  • Timed Repetition: This technique requires careful planning of class time. Instructors pinpoint times throughout the lecture when they should stop and repeat key points. Timed repetition works well in five to 10 minute intervals. By stopping and repeating, more time for processing can occur and learning of the material will be maintained.
  • Recap at end of lecture: Recapping key points before class time concludes increases recall and allows students to reflect on what was taught, and maintains important information in working memory before students leave the classroom. 

Technique #4 - Chunking

The duration and capacity of working memory is quite small; anywhere between seven to nine chunks with an average 15 seconds of information. Keep in mind that working memory is not limited to the size of those chunks (Woolfolk, 2016). One way to bypass these restrictions is to use chunking. We are better able to process those individual items into one larger chunk when items are grouped by their similarities or commonalities. For example, you may better remember tiger, lion, and bear from a list of words if you group them into a chunk: “large animals”. We are also capable of chunking numerical information. Our current practice of remembering e-mail addressed by separating them into the section before and after the @ symbol is an example of chunking. Grouping items into one chunk allows for better processing and can increase the size of what can be remembered. Here are a few ways that instructors can use chunking within their courses.

  • Chunk information in lesson plans: Instructors should review the content they plan to go over and then group similar content into single chunks. This will help students process more information. Present these chunks instead of individual concepts. For example, an instructor wanting to introduce students to the geography of the nervous system should not simply present dozens of new vocabulary terms. Instead, she should categorize terms by function or location such as teaching brain lobes together, or sensory functions together.
  • Engage students in chunking content (e.g. concept maps): Learning activities that involve students have been connected to higher student engagement and interest. Chunking is a great tool that students can use in any class. Instructors can present, for example, pieces of a concept and have students chunk the pieces that belong together in a concept map format. This will also build familiarity with the content and increase relevancy. Returning to the previous example, instead of the instructor chunking key terms of the nervous system, students would engage in careful analysis of each term to create chunks or a concept map of the nervous system. Through active processing and deeper level exploration, students would ultimately discover similarities and differences between key parts of the nervous system and use this information to build the concept map. This experience allows students to stay active with the content and to become familiar with complex vocabulary as they work through the chunking process.   


Working memory, which is often considered the “work bench” of the memory system, is crucial in the learning process. Proper presentation of information and content knowledge is critical for successful student learning. Instructors have a pivotal role in teaching content that most students will use in future courses and in their careers. Employing pedagogical content knowledge, not just content knowledge, is important to whether or not students will retain or lose information. Key points to remember about working memory and how to help students “work” their working memory are:

1. Consider how the eyes and ears must work together for optimal processing.

2. Consider how much background knowledge is needed before devising lessons.

3. Reflect on personal pedagogy and whether or not you have delivered content in a way that has enhanced or overloaded processing.

4. Increase strategies that promote relevancy, imagery, organization, repetition, and chunking when delivering content.

5. Include students in reflection activities that center on their personal understanding of how their working memory “works”.


Melissa Luis is the Education Degree Program Coordinator and an education and psychology faculty member at Middlesex County College in Edison, NJ. She received her Bachelor's degree from Syracuse University and her Professional Diploma in School Psychology and Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Fordham University in New York City. Dr. Luis spent her early professional career in the New York City public school system as a School Psychologist. She currently coordinates the education program for Middlesex County College and has focused her time on developing stronger pedagogical practices in pre-service teachers and higher education professionals, along with creating effective teacher preparation.

James Martiney received his Bachelor's Degree from Princeton University (Biology) and his Ph.D. in Experimental Pathology and Immunology from Sue Golding Graduate School of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He spent several years doing research in various aspects of malaria pathophysiology and drug resistance before choosing a career in Higher Education. He is currently a Faculty member in the Department of Natural Sciences at Middlesex County College. His current research interests center on effective teaching practices and scientific literacy.


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