The role of working memory in learning

In this video, you'll learn about the role of cognitive load in learning theory and the energy-consuming processing steps that MUST happen for you to learn efficiently.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
20th Jul 2021 • 5m read

When we learn something new, our working memory needs to process it into mental models so we can make sense of it. In this video, you'll learn about the role of cognitive load in learning theory and the energy-consuming processing steps that MUST happen for you to learn efficiently.

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Video transcript

When we learn in a classroom or school setting, we take up information through two channels, the ears and the eyes. Our ears receive information in the form of words, whereas our eyes receive information in the form of images or words. In order to create meaning from this raw material, our working memory needs to process it into mental models, so we can make sense of it.

This process takes up energy. That energy is also called cognitive load in learning theory. Each one of us has an upper limit to the cognitive load that we can handle, and energy is consumed by the processing steps that we're going to talk about next. So, what are the energy consuming processing steps that need to happen?

First, we need to pay attention and select the information that we consider most relevant. Although there are individual differences on average, our working memory can hold somewhere between five and seven pieces of information. This constraint on our processing capacity forces us to make decisions about which pieces of incoming information to pay attention to.

So, during learning, we are forced to select what we think are the most important words that come in through our ears and the most important words and images that come in through our eyes. This schematic of our working memory shows that it has two parts. This part is well working memory stores words and images before it processes them further.

The words that came in through the ears and the words and images that came in through the eyes now have to align with one another. A lot of the spoken and written words will be converted into images, because that's how our minds work. It's easier for us to think about and memorize something that exists in the real world that could be depicted in an image, like a watch, than it is to think about something a bit more abstract, which only exists as a word like time.

But nevertheless, some of the images will also be converted into words, like a watch showing five o'clock might be converted into 5 pm in working memory. So again, in order for the pictures and words here to align, some of the words will be converted into pictures and some pictures will be converted into words. So, how do we create mental models then?

Once the alignment between images and words has taken place, then your working memory moves to the next step, and organizes the information into verbal and pictorial mental models. It's kind of like having a box of different legos of all shapes and colors. If you want to build a castle out of them, you first need to select the legos you think will be useful, organize them according to shape and color, and then assemble them into a castle.

The castle in this case is our mental model. You then integrate the verbal and pictorial mental models with prior knowledge already stored in long term-memory. So it can be encoded into long-term memory too. Let's take an example from the book Multimedia Learning by Richard E. Mayer. The Bible for anyone working in online education on how clouds are formed, so you can see for yourself how working memory operates.

First, cool moist air moves from a cold surface, represented by the sea, over a warm surface, represented by the island, and becomes heated. Warmed, moist air near the Earth's surface rises rapidly. As the air in the updraft cools, water vapor condenses into water droplets and forms a cloud. Now what just happened?

As I explained how clouds are formed, several things happened in your brain. You listen to my words and watch the animation. You paid attention to and selected the elements you perceived as essential, like maybe the blue arrows depicting cold air, the red arrows depicting warmer air, the sea and the land, and finally, the cloud.

You aligned what I said with what you saw. As you selected and concentrated on the information you thought was most important, you may have decided subconsciously that the other information that was also present in my animation, like the trees and the house, were not as important to understand the concept of cloud formation, so you discarded them.

Or the fact that the arrows in my animation had a wavy appearance. That's not really important for your mental model. So you just discard that piece of information and replace the wavy arrows with straight arrows in your own mental model. So as you selected certain items, you prioritize them over others. So your final pictorial mental model might look something like this. Straight arrows, sea, land, cloud.

To get this finished mental model, you had to align your pictorial and verbal models and finally connect them to preexisting mental models that were already stored in your long-term memory. Like, for example, that warm air rises, you knew that before, right? This process required you to connect or integrate new mental models to existing ones.

Once your model had been integrated with other models already stored in your long-term memory, you had to encode it, which means that the new model itself got stored in long-term memory. So there you have it, you now have a mental model of how clouds are formed, and a mental model on how working memory generates knowledge.