“Working Memory is Limited: Six Ways Teachers Can Address This” by Vanessa Evagora

Methods to Explain Memory

When studying what memory is and how to advise teachers to enhance their pupils’ memories, there are two approaches which can be used:

  • Neuroscience: the ways in which the brain accommodates and represents memory (localisation of function, neurons, neurotransmitters, etc.)
  • Cognitive Psychology: representations or models that explain how information is absorbed and reproduced.

Different Models of Memory

Cognitive psychologists have endeavoured to construct visual representations (models) of the processes and structures of memory. This is akin to constructing the map of the underground with the stations and the points at which different processes or movements of the tube trains (accelerate, decelerate, reversing, braking, etc.) occur.

The models of memory are each supported with significant amounts of experimental research. The models are theoretical ideas, with their own strengths and weaknesses. The four main models in chronological order are:

  1. Multistore model of memory (Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968)
  2. Levels of processing model (Craik and Lockhart, 1972)
  3. Working memory model (Baddeley, 1989)
  4. MNESIS: Memory NEoStructural Inter-Systemic model (Eustache, Viard and Desgranges, 2016).

Capacity, Duration, Encoding

For each of the three memory stores (structures), experimental research has identified its unique:

  • Capacity (how much)
  • Duration (how long it lasts)
  • Encoding (form it is stored in, such as iconic, echoic, semantically)

So what? Learning needs in relation to Capacity and Encoding

  • Where STM capacity is ≤ 4, there is indication of anxiety disorders / OCD (Persson, Yates, Kessler and Harkin, 2021).
  • STM capacity can be very large in those with ADHD (Ortega et al., 2020)
  • For those with ASD:
    • verbal LTM is limited (implications for subjects with a wide vocabulary)
    • recognition and cued recall are similar to those without ASD (comprehension questions are OK, questions with images to prompt recall is fine)
    • there are difficulties with free recall (exam papers with MCQ , lots of short answer questions, questions with large question rubrics, can be challenging) (Desaunay et al., 2020).

Working Memory

The first model of memory (MSM) is generally accepted, as there is significant evidence (including neuroscience) that show the evidence of a STM and LTM stores.

The three later models are simply trying to explain the structures and the processes that exist within the short-term memory store alone. Baddeley’s naming of the short-term memory as ‘working memory’ was adopted to represent this memory store’s function, rather than duration. There are some cognitive psychologists consider that both short term memory (fragile and passive) and working memory (active processing) stores exist.

Working Memory: Capacity

Identifying the characteristics of working memory allows for shaping of teaching and learning to enhance later retrieval and to minimise forgetting.

Capacity = 3-4 items / elements of new information at one time (Cowan, 2010). This was why Baddeley designed post codes as 3-4 digits / letters + 3-4 digits / letters, unlike USA zip codes which are 5-9 digits.

So what? Enhancing WM’s limited Capacity

  1. Utilise Schema theory (Bartlett, 1932) by creating disequilibrium and then allow for accommodation into current schemas / schemata (Piaget, 1936). For example, using
  • Starter tasks:
    • short answer questions retrieval practice
    • asking open ended thinking questions
    • using connect four / odd one out
  • Plenary and exit questions which ask for change / relevance (e.g. what are you going to do now? How has your knowledge changed?)
  1. Limit cognitive load (Sweller, 1988) in everything presented to the pupils in lessons:
  • Do not speak at the same time as pupils are reading (PowerPoint or booklets)
  • Materials are presented with nothing extraneous (e.g. no logos on PowerPoints, images are not used for types of tasks on written materials)
  • Consistency in lesson design and systems (e.g. line up, starter task, exposition, consolidation, plenary, etc.)
  • Focal point in the classroom should be simple (e.g. teacher’s desk, whiteboard)
  • Clock should be above the focal point in the classroom (Martin, Poirier and Bowler, 2009)
  • Right hand side of the focal point should have key terms (Sperry, 1968).

There is a lovely blog article on this here (Ashman, 2017)

Reducing the cognitive load in PowerPoints (Information Technology Services, 2010) can be achieved by:

  • Avoid white background as it is hard on the eyes when projected. Pale / pastel yellow attracts attention and green is calming.
  • No logos on PowerPoints, as it is distracting and extraneous
  • Reduced text (6×6 rule: no more than six words per line; no more than six lines per slide)
  • Sparing use of underlining and bold text; avoid italics.
  • Every third slide should have a graphic.
  • Avoid split attention effects (Chandler and Sweller, 1992), for example when different sources of information discussing the same topic are separated by time or space, such as a diagram with a key that corresponds to separate text next to it.
  1. Consider sequencing
  • Spiral curriculum across years, incrementally building on ideas (Bruner, 1960) to creating disequilibrium and then allow for accommodation into current schemas / schemata (Piaget, 1936)

  • Simple-to-complex lesson sequencing and fading form of scaffolding (Renkl and Atkinson, 2003) in lessons, where a model answer is given, gradually removing completed steps, which the pupil will have to complete independently, and finally leaving just the to-be-solved problem.

Working Memory: Duration

The duration of new information in working memory is temporary and limited at 10-15 seconds (Goldstein, 2011). As this time span is so short, the new information in the WM must be encoded into LTM otherwise it will decay or be displaced.

So what? Working with the WM’s limited duration

  1. Be mindful of reading rates for instructions and questions. The average silent reading rate for adults in English is 238 word per minute (wpm) for non-fiction and 260 wpm for fiction (Brysbaert, 2019). Questions and instructions should never be beyond 60 words maximum for pupils.
  2. Use retrieval cues to allow access to LTM (Goldstein, 2011).
  3. Be mindful of the location updating effect (aka the Doorway Effect) by using entrance and exit questions over the threshold of the classroom (Lawrence and Peterson, 2014).


Understanding the structures, processes and limitations of memory is important for teachers to enhance the retrieval and limit the forgetting of their pupils.

Various models of memory have been suggested and short-term memory store is often regarded as the working memory. This working memory is limited in both capacity and duration.

Teachers should be aware of these six ways to respond to working memory’s limited duration and capacity:

  1. Utilise Schema theory
  2. Limit cognitive load
  3. Consider sequencing within lessons and across the curriculum journey
  4. Understand reading rates
  5. Use retrieval cues
  6. Beware of the location updating effect.



Ashman, G., 2017. Four ways cognitive load theory has changed my teaching. [Blog] Filling the Pail, Available at: <https://gregashman.wordpress.com/about-this-blog/&gt; [Accessed 2 September 2021].

Atkinson, R. and Shiffrin, R., 1968. Human Memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, pp.89-195.

Baddeley, A., 1989. Working memory. Oxford: Clarendon.

Bartlett, F., 1932. Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruner, J., 1960. The process of education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brysbaert, M., 2019. How many words do we read per minute? A review and meta-analysis of reading rate.

Chandler, P. and Sweller, J., 1992. The Split-Attention Effect as A Factor In The Design Of Instruction. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 62(2), pp.233-246.

Cowan, N., 2010. The Magical Mystery Four. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), pp.51-57.

Craik, F. and Lockhart, R., 1972. Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11(6), pp.671-684.

Desaunay, P., Briant, A., Bowler, D., Ring, M., Gérardin, P., Baleyte, J., Guénolé, F., Eustache, F., Parienti, J. and Guillery-Girard, B., 2020. Memory in autism spectrum disorder: A meta-analysis of experimental studies. Psychological Bulletin, 146(5), pp.377-410.

Eustache, F., Viard, A. and Desgranges, B., 2016. The MNESIS model: Memory systems and processes, identity and future thinking. Neuropsychologia, 87, pp.96-109.

Goldstein, E., 2011. Cognitive psychology. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Information Technology Services, 2010. PP Design Tips. [online] Uis.edu. Available at: <https://www.uis.edu/informationtechnologyservices/wp-content/uploads/sites/106/2013/04/PPDesignTips.pdf&gt; [Accessed 4 September 2021].

Lawrence, Z. and Peterson, D., 2014. Mentally walking through doorways causes forgetting: The location updating effect and imagination. Memory, 24(1), pp.12-20.

Martin, J., Poirier, M. and Bowler, D., 2009. Brief Report: Impaired Temporal Reproduction Performance in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40(5), pp.640-646.

Ortega, R., López, V., Carrasco, X., Escobar, M., García, A., Parra, M. and Aboitiz, F., 2020. Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying working memory encoding and retrieval in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Scientific Reports, 10(1).

Persson, S., Yates, A., Kessler, K. and Harkin, B., 2021. Modeling a multidimensional model of memory performance in obsessive-compulsive disorder: A multilevel meta-analytic review. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 130(4), pp.346-364.

Piaget, J., 1936. Origins of Intelligence. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Renkl, A. and Atkinson, R., 2003. Structuring the Transition From Example Study to Problem Solving in Cognitive Skill Acquisition: A Cognitive Load Perspective. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), pp.15-22.

Sperry, R., 1968. Hemisphere deconnection and unity in conscious awareness. American Psychologist, 23(10), pp.723-733.

Sweller, J., 1988. Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), pp.257-285.


By Vanessa Evagora, Ed.D student at the University of Buckingham

Vanessa is Assistant Principal at an Academy in East London. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors and is undertaking the Ed.D at the University of Buckingham, measuring the predictive and construct validity of high stakes assessment of Psychology.

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