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Working Memory

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Working Memory, a component of executive functioning, allows us to temporarily hold information while we simultaneously process other information. With our Working Memory, we recall and apply the knowledge stored in our Short- and Long-term Memories to perform new tasks and to understand new information. As this involves refreshing information in memory, it is often referred to as updating.

Main Ideas

One influential model of Working Memory lays out four components, each considered to have a limited capacity. These separate components are responsible for maintaining verbal Working Memory, visual and spatial Working Memory, and for integrating information from these components while serving as a link between Working Memory and Long-term Memory. In addition, there is an executive control system which directs activities within these systems, including shifting and focusing Attention between them.

High demands on the components of Working Memory may increase cognitive load, or the amount of mental effort being expended by Working Memory during different tasks. For example, those with low Working Memory capacity may have difficulty understanding complex topics while reading online, particularly on smartphones, due to the higher demands of scrolling. Cognitive Load Theory proposes that instruction can be designed in a way that reduces some components of cognitive load:

  • Intrinsic: The cognitive load that results from characteristics (e.g., difficulty) of the content being learned by the individual;
  • Extraneous: The cognitive load that results from how the content is presented (e.g., visuals) to the individual; and
  • Germane: The cognitive load required to create permanent schemas, or concepts, in Long-term Memory. Once schema are made, it is easier to hold information that fits within those schema in Working Memory.

Between ages 35 and 40, Working Memory capacity begins to decline. Metacognitive awareness, including prioritizing activities and focusing on areas of strength, may help adults mitigate the effects of this decline for tasks that rely heavily on Working Memory.

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