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Enhancing Working Memory: 6 Strategies for eLearning Professionals

Without any doubt, one of the most important brain functions with a significant impact in the learning process is working memory. In this article, I’ll explore how working memory functions and I’ll offer 6 strategies that eLearning professionals should follow in order to increase the effectiveness of their eLearning courses by enhancing working memory and, thus, facilitating the transition of knowledge from the short to the long-term memory.
Enhancing Working Memory: 6 Strategies for eLearning Professionals

What eLearning Professionals Should Know About Working Memory

It’s not infrequent the term working memory to be used by many interchangeably with short-term memory. However, there is a clear distinction among the two of them. Short-term memory is a temporary storage area, an anti-chamber to receive and welcome new information coming from our senses. Working memory, on the other hand, is the mechanism that manipulates information temporary located in the short-term memory and either discards it or facilitates its transition to the long-term memory. eLearning content should be based on strategies that enhance this transition in order to guarantee that learning has actually taken place. The aim of this article is to present the most important of these strategies.

When we are trying to learn something new, this new piece of information is temporarily stored in the short-term memory. Working memory operating there, either encodes it in order to be transferred and stored in the long term memory or if there is no sufficient time or learner’s interest, new information comes and replaces the existing one, before the encoding and transferring process to the long-term memory takes place. Information can also simply decay over time and be erased from the working memory. In fact, according to Goldstein (2010), working memory can only store information about 10 to 15 seconds. The exception to this rule is if the information is actively applied or rehearsed, in which case it is eventually moved to the permanent storage of long-term memory. It also takes a great deal of mental effort to keep data in the working memory for any length of time, which can lead to cognitive overload. An overloaded working memory equates to reduced cognitive function and knowledge retention, which means that eLearning professionals must keep its limitations in mind to give their learners the most beneficial virtual learning environment.

When considering how working memory functions in order to improve the online training experience, instructional designers should have two things in mind: how to manage working memory’s limited capacity and working memory strategies that will facilitate the transition of information from short-term to long-term memory.

6 Strategies eLearning Professionals Should Follow To Manage Working Memory’s Limited Capacity

As working memory operates within short-term memory, it has a limited capacity and duration. Due to this fact, when there is much incoming information, working memory tries to retain only the meaningful one and discard all the rest to make room for more incoming information.  Based on this there are certain strategies eLearning professionals should follow in order to manage working memory’s limited capacity.

  1. Present new concepts starting from simplest to most complex.
    If you are working with subject matter that may be more complex or new concepts that the learner is not yet familiar with, it’s a good idea to start with the easier concepts first and then work your way up to the more challenging subject matter. This enables learners to easier assign a meaning to new information and, therefore, transfer it to the long-term memory, creating a foundation upon which they can build their comprehension for more challenging aspects of the eLearning course. When a more complicated concept “comes” later on, it can be related to something that has already been mastered, and this minimizes the possibility of being discarded. On the other hand, if you present a complex concept first, as working memory has neither a point of reference, nor the time to process it, there is an increased probability to discard it. The use of visual aids such as flowcharts and graphics to show the relationship between new and existing knowledge can facilitate this process.
  2. Limit the number of distractions.
    Don’t overload the working memory with clutter. The working memory may be a powerful tool, but it’s also a delicate one. For example, if you include a variety of irrelevant graphics and images in your eLearning course, or create lengthy blocks of text that don’t clearly highlight the key takeaways, then the working memory is not going to be able to function at optimal efficiency. Instead, it will be distracted by all of the clutter and chaos on the page, which means that it cannot properly digest the subject matter. When designing your eLearning course make sure that every element within it ties into the learning goals and objectives. Limit the amount of clutter by removing unnecessary animations, audio, video, and narration, as these elements will only place undue stress on the working memory.
  3. Provide opportunities for practice.
    Increase retention by reviewing early and often. Working memory is a two-way communication system. Not only does it transfers new information to the long-term memory, but it also retrieves already acquired information in order to be able to evaluate the new one. When our working memory recalls information it helps to reinforce knowledge retention. This is why it’s essential to integrate activities that ask learners to summarize the information they have learned throughout the eLearning course. Begin the eLearning unit with an overview of what to be learned in order to provide an overall structure of the eLearning course; then, have them put key concepts of the eLearning content in their own words throughout the eLearning course. Ask them to create a weekly blog post that explores the subjects discussed during the week, or have them complete assessments after each section. This not only prevents cognitive overload, as they have several opportunities to review the information, but also strengthens working memory when it needs to make associations of new and existing knowledge.
  4. Chunking.
    Working memory only provides a small space in which information can be stored. Usually it can only hold about four to five pieces of new information at any given time, which means that learners are only able to handle a limited amount of new data before experiencing cognitive overload. Research has shown that the capacity of the working memory also depends on the type of information received. For example, it has been proved that we tend to remember more digits than letters, shorter than longer words, etc. One useful technique to deal with the limited capacity issue of the working memory is chunking. Instead of presenting spare concepts, you can create lessons that are more easily digestible by chunking information into groups that involve similar concepts or ideas. By doing so, the entire group of concepts occupies a single position in working memory and not multiple ones. This not only multiples the amount of information that can pass through the working memory, but also the amount of information that can get transferred to the long-term memory for permanent storage.
  5. Present information in meaningful and easily digestible ways.
    Breaking the lesson into smaller parts, is a good practice that also facilitates working memory to process the information. This is due to the fact that our minds can remember shorter words more effectively than longer sentences. Create individual learning units that feature a learning goal or objective and give your learners the opportunity to pause in between lessons so that they can fully absorb the knowledge they have gathered. The use of bullet points is an effective way to present eLearning content with key concepts to be assimilated, rather that longer sentences that working memory may discard.
  6. Include assignments that activate long term memory schemata.
    While working memory has a limited capacity, this is not the case with long-term memory. Working memory strives to retrieve background information we know about a particular topic by accessing information stored within our long term memory schemata, which are highly complex structures that help us to alleviate cognitive overwhelm. Every attempt to link the new information just arrived in short-term memory to our existing cognitive schemata is beneficial to learning, as it enhances the functions of the working memory in order to transfer this new piece of knowledge to the long-term memory as well, either by adding additional information to an existing schema, or by altering the existing schema according to the new information received. The fist process is known as association, though the second as accommodation. In terms of eLearning, when you incorporate activities that encourage the learner to access their long term memory banks, such as scenarios or simulations that feature previously learned concepts, you significantly boost knowledge retention as you support and make it easier for the working memory to link new information to already existing schemata stored in our long-term memory.

These have been a few tips to help you create effective eLearning courses that optimize the working memory functions without overwhelming your learners’ cognitive abilities. This allows the information to flow from this temporary storage space to their long term memory and stay there for the rest of their lives.

Interested in learning more about memory? The article Memory: Types, Facts And Myths features the types of memory you’ll want to bear in mind when developing eLearning courses.

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