College can be overwhelming! How can we possibly take in new information, hold on to what we already know, and filter out what’s important? Lucky for us, our memory can help with this! You may only think of memory as short or long-term memory, when actually our memory is always active even when we’re not aware of it! This unconscious memory is known as working-memory.
Working-memory is a combination of attention and memory. Even when we’re not aware of it, working-memory allows us to perform every-day tasks. Eating breakfast, going to class, or driving to school, all depend on our working-memory. It takes care of the little steps required to perform these everyday tasks. Ever have a moment when you can’t recall opening your lock or grabbing your bag? This is because our brains are constantly taking in information and processing it, deciding what is important or not.
Working-memory only focuses on one thing at a time. Think about preparing breakfast this morning. Did you have to follow a set of instructions? Probably not. When we’re getting breakfast ready, our working-memory lets us skip the step by step instructions helping you to make your favourite dish.
The same principles apply to reading. Have you found yourself reading a chapter in a book and realize you can’t remember what you just read? This is an example of failed working-memory. When you read a sentence, your brain is processing a number of words at once. Working-memory “remembers” each word as you read it, then puts the words together into a paragraph that is meaningful. There may be a number of reasons why you may not recall a meaningful paragraph but for the most part it is because our working-memory is limited.
This exercise has two steps!
First, try to say the colour of the word out loud.
Second, try to read what the word says.
Which was easier?
Which was harder?
This exercise is known as the Stroop task, named after the psychologist J. Ridley Stroop who designed it in 1935. This was a ground breaking research that explored the limits of our working-memory.
We don’t usually notice working-memory until we’re struggling with it. Psychologists call this limited working-memory the working-memory capacity. Typically our working-memory can only hold information for a few seconds unless we do something meaningful with it.
We’ve all had days when some things are more difficult than usual. We tend to notice our working-memory capacity impacting our functioning when we’re tired. Like everything with our body, our brain needs rest. Our working-memory also struggles when we’re distracted. This happens on a regular basis when your phone rings, or someone is having a conversation you can overhear. We often find ourselves struggling with too much information or demanding tasks. The Stroop task is one example of how our brains function when we’re trying to process too much information at once!
Try and think of a situation where you find yourself struggling to comprehend what you’re reading or working through equations. Some of these factors influencing your working-memory may be to blame!
Research has shown that we may be able to train our working-memory and increase its capacity. However, this training only works best for the certain task that you are training for.
Psychologists have trained research participants on a number of different working-memory tasks to see how much they can improve their working-memory capacities. What they found was that those who practiced visual working-memory tasks that involved shapes and symbols, they would perform better on the same task the more they practiced it. Unfortunately, their improvement did not carry over to other math or reading tasks (Harrison, et al. 2013).
In other words, reading and math are both skills that use working-memory, but training working-memory capacity that pertains to shapes and symbols will not improve your math or reading skills.
Strategy 1: Use Images
Paint a story in your mind using objects, people and characters that are meaningful to you. This can help our brain to process the information easier by connecting it to something we’re already familiar with.
Strategy 2: Organize
Break down problems into smaller chunks to help you create a mental structure. Because our working-memory is limited, this makes it easier for our brains to process new information into something that is meaningful for us.
Strategy 3: Practice!
Repetition creates strong neural pathways in the brain. The more you do something, the easier it becomes. This is the best way to see yourself develop that skill you’re trying to improve on. Experts agree that you can train your working-memory for each task, like math or reading. Remember, practice makes permanent.
Strategy 4: Get your rest!
Just like with everything else in our body, rest is very beneficial for learning and memory. When we get tired, it becomes harder and harder for our brain to process new information.
TedTalk: Peter Doolittle: How your "working memory" makes sense of the world
Advertisers like to market games that claim to increase your memory and working-memory. Unfortunately, the increased memory only applies to the games you’re playing. You can improve your memory scores on these games because you’re practicing the same games! Overall these games have the same effect on memory as playing Call of Duty. The more you play Call of Duty the better your scores will be, however it will have no direct effect to working-memory involved in school assignments.
Gathercole, S., & Alloway, T. (2007). Understanding working memory: a classroom guide. The University of York. Retrieved February 11, 2013, from https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/WM-classroom-guide.pdf
Harrison, T. L., Shipstead, Z., Hicks, K. L., Hambrick, D. Z., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2013). Working memory training may increase working memory capacity but not fluid intelligence. Psychological Science, 24(12), 2409-2419.
Stroop, J. R. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18(6), 643-662. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0054651