By Brady Thomas
When many people get out of high school, they normally believe that they are prepared for anything that college will throw at them. They think that what they learned in high school gave them the proper knowledge to study and learn properly. However, students typically and very quickly find that college is much more different and difficult than what they encountered in high school.
When students begin college, they believe that it will be easier because they do not have class all day, five days a week, like they did in high school. This extra time should be used to complete school-related tasks such as studying, reading course material, or even working on homework. However, most students do not do that. Many college freshmen become caught up in playing video games, watching Netflix, or the ever popular, taking naps. These conflicts of interest can be dangerous because it is typically expected that college students should spend two to three hours outside of class working on course material for every hour they spend in class.
However, because coursework can be difficult and stressful, one tends to avoid it and participate in more activities that they find fun and relaxing. By spending more time away from their assignments, students do not complete them in a timely manner and their coursework accumulates. When this occurs, students begin to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and may feel like their brain cannot store or remember any more information because they are trying to take in so much at one time. This is where working memory comes in to play.
Working memory is described as the brain’s conductor. “Working memory involves the conscious processing and managing of information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension” (1). Unlike long term memory, which involves the large amount of information one saves in their lifetime, working memory is the small amount of information that is kept in one’s mind and used in performing cognitive tasks (2). It is used in storing a small amount of information in a readily available form that aids in planning, understanding, reading, and problem solving (2).
In the 1970s and 1980s, Alan Baddeley, a British psychologist, and his colleagues created a model for working memory to explain how it works. This model uses information on how the brain accepts sensory input, processes visual-spatial and verbal data, and accesses long-term memory. They also included a function of the brain in their model that they called the central executive which process all of the inputs to the brain (1) and gives those inputs to two subsystems called the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad (3).
The central executive is a function of the brain that monitors and coordinates inputs and chooses which information is most important for one to focus on. It sends these inputs to one of two subsystems, the visuo-spatial sketchpad or the phonological loop. The visuo-spatial sketchpad is also known as the inner eye. This sketchpad stores and processes information into a visual form. The Phonological loop, on the other hand, deals with verbal and written material. The Phonological loop consists of two parts, the phonological store, also known as the inner ear, and the articulatory control process, which is also called the inner voice (4).
The main part of the brain that working memory occurs in along with some of the cognitive processes that power the central executive function is the prefrontal cortex. This is known because researchers have found an increase in activity of the prefrontal cortex when people are engaged in thinking and problem solving that uses working memory (1).
The hippocampus and Broca’s area are two other areas of the brain that aid in working memory. The hippocampus is involved in one-term memory, spatial navigation, and spatial memory. The Broca’s area can be found on the left side of the frontal lobes and is used in speech production and language processing (1).
As a college student, it is important to understand what working memory is and how to use it to process new information that one may see or hear in class, in a text book, or on assignments. Fortunately, it is possible to improve working memory and help to activate and enhance the central executive function so that all of the new and confusing information college students may encounter is easier to understand.
A few ways to increase working memory is to repeat information, visualize it, or teach it. Repetition can be used by repeating a piece of information after an instructor says it or by trying to paraphrase the words of an instructor or textbook into more simpler terms that one can understand better. Also, by learning to picture an important diagram or parts of a math reading problem, one can recall that information much faster and demonstrate an increased working memory function. Last, one can teach other students while studying or participate in learning groups in order to apply their working memory and improve their learning experience (1).
However, no matter how much information one tries to contain in their working memory, there is, unfortunately, a capacity to it (5). It is believed that the capacity is four to five pieces of information at any one time and it only last around ten seconds (6). In relation to this capacity, one needs to be careful for cognitive load, “the total amount of mental activity imposed on working memory in any one instant” (6).
Therefore, working memory load comes down to time and practice. This practice can come from looking over notes, making flash cards, studying with friends, or trying to paraphrase the content of one’s books or notes. Another tip that helps towards bettering one’s working memory is scheduling enough time to study without any forms of distraction. When one plans to spend a certain amount of time studying each day, they are less likely to cram in information, take in too much at one time, and experience cognitive load. Now go increase your working memory while limiting cognitive load and conquer your first college exam.
1.)Wilson, D. (2015, February 12). Put working memory to work in learning. [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://edutopia.org/blog/put-working-memory-to-work-donna-wilson-marcus-conyers
2.) Cowan, N. (2013). Working memory underpins cognitive development, learning, and education. Springer Science and Business Media, 26, 197-223. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10648-013-9246-y.pdf
3.)Mcleod, S. (2012). Working memory. SimplyPsychology. Retrieved from https://simplypsychology.org/working%20memory.html
4.)Dehn, M.J. (2008). Working memory and academic learning: Assessment and intervention. Hobokem, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
5.)Cowan, N. (2005). Working memory capacity. New York, NY: Psychology Press Taylor & Francis Group.
6.)Malamed, C. (2011). What is cognitive load? the eLearning Coach. Retrieved from https://theelearningcoach.com/learning/what-is-cognitive-load/