April 23, 2024

Maximizing Working Memory by Reducing Cognitive Load

By Janzen Harding, Instructor

Which is more important: remembering that you have math homework or remembering the equations required to complete the math homework?

Both, of course! However, each deserves a different kind of remembering, and that difference lies in the difference between working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is the executive function skill where we process information temporarily before discarding, replacing, or encoding it into long-term memory. Research shows that working memory only lasts 10-20 minutes and can only process 3-5 pieces of new information at a time. Long-term memory is where we store information that we have put effort into retaining (like content we are studying). Math equations belong in long-term memory; details of assignments don’t. So what are we supposed to do given the limited capacity of working memory?

Cognitive load is the psychological term for the limited capacity of our brain’s working memory. It is important that we manage our cognitive load efficiently so that we don’t overwhelm our working memory and forget things. Here are some tips for physical steps on how to do that:

Download information. Trying to keep track of information in our heads increases cognitive load. Downloading information to an external source (similarly to how we can manage a computer’s storage by using external memory drives) can reduce cognitive load and free up memory space for long-term storage. Ways to download information include:

  • Using an agenda or planner to keep track of dated information
  • Writing a to-do list (Google Keep is an excellent digital tool for lists)
  • Setting an alarm or reminder on your phone
  • Write out processes (like solving math problems or step-by-step instructions)
  • Keep guidelines, instructions, and rubrics in a visible place while working on assignments
  • Creating a spatial reminder (for example, using a bookmark or placing a sports bag next to your backpack the night before to remember gym clothes)

By downloading information, you relieve yourself of the responsibility to remember and you can rely on the accuracy of the information because you downloaded it while it was fresh in your mind.

Color Code. Our minds recognize color more quickly than they can decode text. Color coding allows us to recognize information and make associations at a glance, saving us the cognitive load that reading can contribute to. When color coding, remember to be consistent. Color code things like:

  • Outlines 
  • Binders (assign a color to each subject)
  • Notes (use different colored highlighters, markers, color pencils)
  • Schedules (assign colors to certain types of events. For example, use one color per class,sporting events, extracurricular events, social events, etc.)

Not only is color-coding a great organization tool, it’s fun and can turn the mundane task of writing a list into a creative moment. Additionally, research has shown that the associative attributes of color can increase memory retention!

Keep an organized space. Not only does searching for things or sorting through information add to cognitive load, it also takes valuable time and energy! Save yourself from exerting unnecessary effort by:

  • Minimizing computer tabs (you can combine windows into grouped tabs in Google Chrome)
  • Keeping your email inbox clean (create labels to file messages, immediately delete unnecessary emails and unsubscribe from undesired providers)
  • Making sure that everything has a specific place so you know where to find items (this also means being intentional about replacing items to their respective “homes!”)
  • Reducing clutter by habitual clearing out of unused, outdated, or broken items/papers/tools/assignments/etc.

Downloading information, color coding, and keeping an organized space are some simple steps to reduce cognitive load. With these strategies, a little can go a long way, and picking one or two to practice regularly can help form the basis for greater memory retention. So the next time you’re assigned a math assignment, write it down in a planner in color-specific ink and store the worksheet in a homework folder!