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Working Memory

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Working Memory, a component of executive functioning, allows a person to temporarily hold and manipulate information to apply in other processes. With our Working Memory, we recall and apply the knowledge stored in our Short- and Long-term Memories to help understand what we are reading and writing. When Working Memory is overtaxed, a reader can seem to be distracted because they struggle recalling and using information they read.

Main Ideas

Working Memory can also be called updating as it involves working with and updating information in memory. 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 that serves as a link between Long-term Memory and Working Memory. In addition, there is an executive control system which directs activities within these systems, including shifting and focusing attention between them.

Cognitive load is another important element of Working Memory and refers to the amount of mental effort being expended by Working Memory during different tasks. 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 student;
  • Extraneous: The cognitive load that results from how the content is presented (e.g., visuals) to the student; 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 fit within those schema in Working Memory.

Learning to write also requires a multitude of skills, including handwriting and the generation of ideas, which places heavy demands on Working Memory, resulting in limited writing in very young children. However, as Working Memory capacity increases with age and these skills become more automatic, these limitations lessen.

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