During an experiment conducted by Dr. Strayer, (2006) during his studies about the fragility of the human brain; forty individuals drove a car in a simulator under four conditions:
- No distractions
- Talking on a hand-held cell phone
- Talking on a hands-free cell phone
- Intoxicated to 0.08 percent blood alcohol level.
On a simulated freeway, a pace car braked 32 times during the 10-mile trip. Three of the participants who collided into the pace car were talking on cell phones both handheld and hands-free; none of the drunk drivers crashed.
Our brains are deceptive because we often don’t realize the severe processing limits that affect all mental activities.
Limits of human memory
Let’s try a short experiment. You need a pencil and paper. If you are near a friend or family member ask them to read List A to you. Ask them to read each word at a normal pace. When they are done, write down as many words as you can recall. If you are alone, spend about 30 seconds reading through the list of words yourself. Then without looking back, write down as many as you can recall. Next repeat the same process using List B.
When done, count the number of words you recalled in each list. Which list was more memorable for you?
Most people recall more words from List A than List B. In comparing the two, List B has a higher proportion of abstract words. List A has more concrete words.
Now look at the positions of the words you recalled in both lists. Determine whether the words you recalled came from the start of the lists, the end or the middle. Do you see a pattern? If you have reviewed the words sequentially from top to bottom, chances are you recalled more words from the start and end of each list.
The results from this little demonstration reveal three key features of our working memory- the memory that is both the engine and bottleneck of learning.
First and foremost, working memory, as its name implies, is an active processor. It is the conscious part of your brain – the part that thinks, solves problems, and learns. It was the active processing of the words you read in the list that led to you recalling them later. The words you did not recall did not received sufficient processing for learning.
Chances are you did not recall all the words in either list. Working memory has pretty severe restrictions regarding how much information it can hold. And the limits are even more stringent when working memory is processing. Recent estimates set a limit of around three to five items when working memory must also be actively engaged in other activities. You recalled more words in the first part of the lists because your working memory had capacity to process those initial words. However, as you added more and more words, that processing capacity was soon exceeded. As each new word entered memory, it replaced an older word with little opportunity for processing. You may have recalled more of the last words in the list if you wrote right away. These last words still active in working memory when you finished and were not replaced by more words.
The term dual channels refers to the fact that working memory has a centre storing and processing auditory information and a separate centre for visual information. When you read a concrete word such as: flower, you are more likely to process it in two ways: as phonetic data and also as the image that your mind forms when reading the word. In contrast, a word such as moral is not as easy to visualise, and in many cases you encode it only in the phonetic format. Concrete words that can be encoded in two ways have a greater possibility of being stored in memory. This is why List A with more concrete words was more memorable overall.
These three features: active processing, limited capacity, and dual channels; are the prime determinants for what works and what does not work in your training. We need working memory capacity to process new information for learning occur. But when we load it up with content or irrelevant work, that processing is corrupted. We call this “cognitive overload” or “mental overload”.
The key features are summarised in the following table:
What it means
Working memory is the conscious part of your brain that thinks, solves problems, and learns
Trainers must engage working memory for learning to occur
Working memory can only hold a few items at one time. When working memory fills, it’s processing capabilities slow down.
Trainers must avoid overloading working memory for learning to occur
Working memory has a separate area for storing visual and auditory information
Trainers can extend working memory capacity by using the visual and auditory components
There a number of techniques trainers can use to minimise cognitive overload.
Long-Term Memory and Learning
While working is the start of the learning show, we can’t leave out its supporting partner, long-term memory. Unlike working memory, long-term memory has a huge capacity for information. During learning, whether formal or informal, the processing in working memory results in new or expanded patterns stored in long-term memory. These patterns can be brought back into working memory when needed and thereby endow working memory with much larger virtual capacity.
Grounded Brain-Based Training
Our training environments must support four key process that transform information from trainers, workbooks, or computer screens into new knowledge and skills in long-term memory:
- Processing in working memory
- Management of mental load
- Retrieval from long-term memory
The core processes
All of us are familiar with lapses of attention. You might be reading this Newsletter and suddenly realise you did not process any meaning of the last two paragraphs. You read the words but did not really process them. Or you are involved in a conversation, someone asks you a question and you realise you had not really been following the threads. Attention is the critical first step of any learning episode. Attention means that you have directed the limited capacity of working memory to a few specific elements in the environment. In the case of learning, you have directed your attention to the words and visuals you see and hear or to the actions you take during a practice exercise.
As trainers we use many techniques to gain and sustain attention. For example, we use a laser pointer or arrows on a slide to focus attention to the important elements of a complex visual. We also discuss the learning objectives of a lesson. By understanding the intended outcome goals, learners can direct attention to the more relevant portions of the lesson. Not only do we help learners focus attention, but we also minimise the distractions that lead to split attention. Have you ever been reading a book and found the important visual needed to interpret the words on the back of the page? You flip over and study the visual, but at that point you can’t see the words. How do you feel? Usually, a little annoyed. That frustration is your working memory complaining about having to hold content in memory while accessing physically separated content needed to make the message meaningful. This is a common example of split attention that occurs not only in books but on slides and computer screens as well.
Engage learners to promote processing
Just attending to a message, however, is not sufficient to ensure learning. Learning is an active process that takes place in working memory. By deeply processing the attended words and visuals in the lesson, the learner abstracts meaning from them and integrates them with existing knowledge in long-term memory. There are two main roads to help learners actively engage with the content. One is the use of frequent relevant activities that stimulate the active processing needed for learning. Practice exercises are the most common techniques. A second road is the use of what we call implicit training methods – methods that encourage deep processing in the absence of physical activity on the part of the learner. A good example is the use of relevant graphics. By sending a coordinated message with words and with visuals, you can leverage the dual channel feature of working memory and increase the opportunities for processing.
Manage mental load
Learning requires that the limited capacity of working memory be allocated to active processing. Therefore, effective learning environments minimise unproductive sources of mental load that bog down working memory. Unproductive mental load hogs memory capacity but does not contribute to learning. For example, we will see that when it comes to learning, less is often more. For instance, a simple line drawing will often lead to better learning than a realistic three-dimensional drawing, a photograph, or an animation. The reason is that working memory can abstract meaning from the simpler drawing without being overloaded by the extraneous information in more complex visuals.
Management of mental load is a fundamental prerequisite of all effective learning environments – especially when the content is complex and the learner novice.
Ensure learning transfer via retrieval
Transfer of learning means that after a successful training event in which new knowledge and skills have been stored in long-term memory, those new skills will be brought back into working memory when needed on the job. The access of knowledge and skills from long-term memory back into working memory at a later time is called retrieval. And retrieval is the psychological basis for transfer of learning. It’s a mistake to assume that if learning takes place in the class transfer will occur. Just because your learners get an A on their test is no guarantee that they will be able to apply those new skills later. In fact, transfer of learning tends to be quite elusive and requires the use of special methods during training.
What if I ask you to state the months of the year? No problem, right? But now imagine stating the months of the year in alphabetic order. You could do it, but it would take you quite a bit of time to sort it out without writing the months down. The reason is that all retrieval cues are stored in long-term memory at the time of learning. In the case of the calendar, your cues are chronological – not alphabetic. As you plan your training environment, it’s important to embed the right retrieval cues at the time of learning.