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Memory and learning: easing the load

Posted by Dr Corinna Klupiec on April 14, 2014 at 4:21 PM

We tend to take memory for granted, until it fails us. You often hear people say in exasperation that their mental hard drive is full and they need to delete something to take on new information. But if we look at the literature, it is not a question of exceeding our hard drive capacity, rather that we are not "saving" our mental files properly in the first place. This has important implications for learning.

Working memory & long term memory

According to Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), a learner's cognitive architecture consists of working memory, which is limited, and long term memory, which is apparently immense - at least in theory. New information has to be processed by the working memory. After successful processing, this new information is assimilated into the long term memory. The "file" is saved.

As the working memory is limited, it represents a bottleneck in the process. According to CLT, the way to maximise the efficiency of the working memory (ie to minimise the bottleneck effect) is to balance the capacity of the working memory with the "total cognitive load". So does this mean we just need to avoid information overload, so that the working memory can process small chunks of information at a time? Well, not quite.

Allowing working memory to function efficiently

Total cognitive load consists not only of the information itself and its inherent complexity ("intrinsic load"), but how the information is presented ("extrinsic load"). The interesting thing here is that, while we have little influence over intrinsic load, extrinsic load is something we can control.

When an information delivery system is well designed, it helps to reduce the total cognitive load and allows the working memory to function more efficiently, increasing the likelihood that the information will pass into the long term memory. In other words, it helps us to write data to our cerebral hard drive in such a way that we are more likely to be able to retrieve it.

So what makes a well designed information delivery system? In my next post I will look at some of the evidence, and at how technology can help.

Khalil MK, Mansour MM and Wilhite DR (2010). Evaluation of Cognitive Loads Imposed by
Traditional Paper-Based and Innovative Computer-Based Instructional Strategies.

Topics: Memory

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