Working memory is defined as a cognitive system that holds information temporarily and has a limited capacity. Working memory is considered to be important for reasoning and decision making and also controlling behaviour. In education, working memory is something often talked about by teachers when they notice students struggling with processing or retaining information in the classroom.
Baddeley (1974) developed a working model that established that working memory is distinct from long term memory and not only does it deal with retaining information but also processes the information to develop cognition.
Nee and D’Espocito (2018) carried out extensive research that investigated the connection between the retention and processing aspects of working memory.
It seems that teachers are right to assume that a student’s ability to process information will have a direct impact on their ability to remember the information.
The Delay Cell
A fascinating discovery by Nee and D-Esposito relates to the highlighting of the “delay cell” whereby working memory stimulates and fires prolonged neurons in parts of the brain other than just the medial temporal lobe. Meanwhile, information that is redundant fades and is discarded.
Attention Versus Working Memory
Nee and D’Espocito (2018) produced evidence using case studies and scans of neuroimaging activity. This gave insights into the different areas of the brain that were stimulated when working memory was being utilised. From their studies, they found that working memory stimulates a part of the prefrontal cortex and keeps this part of the brain active. While this occurs, the posterior area maintains representations.
To be clear, there is certainly a connection between representations and rehearsal and refreshing happening within the brain when working memory is being utilised. Both retention and processing are occurring with working memory.
On the other hand, with attention, the representations remain in the environment, not the mind.
The distinction between attention and working memory are increasingly important to teachers as working memory has become a focus in government and Ofsted guidance. Teachers who understand the effect that working memory has on learning will find it easier to establish ways to increase engagement and active learning rather than passive attention.
Understanding working memory
Studies of working memory tend to be based on neuroscience and are often difficult for teachers to understand.
What is clear though, is that studies that focus on observing the effects of different circumstances on the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain, help to unpick the effects of processing on retention.
Unfortunately, few researchers have taken on the full analysis required to understand exactly how working memory can be understood.
In education, it is important to consider how working memory can engage any part of the brain. No matter what age group is being taught, students will benefit from teachers understanding the difference between linking the processing of information to retaining what they have been taught.
As always, understanding the impact of active learning requires teachers to think about the ways they teach in order to improve their students’ ability to retain information and understand what has been taught. It seems that, for now, we know that giving students the opportunity to manipulate information will help them to learn and retain what they have learned.