Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Working Memory - The Learning Machinery

Working Memory Overview (click)
Just what is Working Memory ?

Working memory (WM) refers to those parts of the brain that actively hold multiple pieces of information in your mind while this information is assessed and manipulated.

WM is located in the pre-frontal cortex (behind your forehead).

This mental apparatus is involved in allocating attention, monitoring, perceptions, self-control, planning, goal setting, decision making, understanding, problem solving and conscious learning.

These processes are sensitive to age: working memory is associated with cognitive development, and research shows that its capacity tends to decline with old age.

All your explicit or conscious learning takes place here. The learning task requires mental effort and self-control. It is an energy demanding process. Working memory has a limited capacity. Learning how to learn - becoming an efficient learner - makes the learning process easier.

                 Components of the working memory

Working Memory includes those parts of the brain involved with short term memory (STM is held for just a few seconds), parts that manipulate information (eg. connecting /associating new information to existing LTM or building a new concept /schema to store away in LTM) and the attention system (closely associated).

Information enters working memory from the external world (via the senses). It also enters from internal sources /your inner world - from the long term memory (your knowledge base) and from your thoughts and feelings (emotions).

So ... how is this information selected, briefly held, manipulated and stored away? 

Well let's look at the role or function of each component of working memory.

Central Executive :  this is the "boss" of WM. It has overall attentional control of the working memory system (called top-down control). It selects input that may be of interest /relevant (or may represent a threat) and selectively focuses your attention on it. Mental effort is required to maintain this focus especially when a learning task is complex /difficult.

Short Term Memory: information is retained here for a short period of time ( a matter of seconds). STM consists of two parts. The phonological loop located in the left-brain and the visuo-spatial sketckpad located in the right-brain.
  • The phonological loop is merely a temporary store for heard information, particularly speech. It keeps playing the sound heard over and over in a two second loop - just like a tape loop or a tape recorder with a two-second duration. This is referred to as ‘verbal rehearsal'.
  • The visuo-spatial scratchpad has evolved to provide a way of integrating visuo-spatial information from multiple sources, visual, tactile and kinaesthetic, as well as from both episodic (personal experience eg. your birthday) and semantic (factual information eg. maths) long-term memory.

Episodic Buffer: the link between the various working memory components and long-term memory (a relatively new component described in the WM model).

The main characteristic of the episodic buffer is that it ‘binds' together information from different sources within the working memory system into a coherent whole. This final component helps us to make sense of conscious experience by allowing long-term knowledge to be used in tandem with current experience.

The Episodic Buffer combines information into "chunks". It can hold about four or five chunks at any one time (cognitive capacity) - more than this causes overload when meaning, understanding and learning is incomplete or lost.

Learning process needs good concentration skills

Engage your concentration
So, in a nutshell, when you are being taught in the classroom it's your working memory that is doing the learning bit for you.

But  nothing takes place unless concentration is engaged !

Info:  Input > Process > Output
 The Central Executive orders the attention system to focus on the teacher and lesson while images and sounds are captured and  held in STM loops.

Then the episodic buffer makes sense of it for you by linking the new material to existing knowledge and then sending it off to LTM storage. That's called learning ! (revision is needed to "bed down" the new material for a longer period - exam time !)

                              Cognitive Load

Cognitive Capacity (click)
Our working memory is limited with respect to the amount of information it can hold, and the number of operations it can perform on that information - called WM capacity.

The amount of information being held, its degree of difficulty and how it is presented makes up is referred to as the Total Cognitive Load. (like a max. load capacity of a tip-truck)

The more difficult the topic or task, the poorer the teaching presentation  and the greater the  number of elements to be processed then the higher the cognitive load. So more mental effort is required to remain focused. Tiredness comes more quickly. Overload brings confusion and loss of learning.

Small bites of a new topic - a lighter load - allows easier learning.

Total Cognitive Load is composed of 3 types of  loading:

Intrinsic cognitive load: The load depends completely on the complexity or difficulty level of the information being held in WM - of the to-be-learned content. (ie. it is determined by the amount of memory space required by the thinking task at a given time.)

Germane load: Is the load required for the building of new complex schema (concepts or understandings) in a successive way - allowing the learner to develop a greater understanding. It takes mental effort (using energy) to learn and then memorize the information learned.

Extraneous cognitive load: Is determined by how expertly the to-be-learned information is presented (Lesson design). Extraneous cognitive load does not contribute to the actual learning itself but it does the influence the ease of the learning task.

(Note: Cognitive schemata: Are information structures /knowledge databases in stored in long-term memory that are called upon by WM when you need to solve a problems etc.. The working memory receives this LTM information as "chunks"  - which it uses in applying your acquired knowledge (eg. make sense of something or do exams or some performance task or whatever)

               Students Learning Tips

Now that you have some idea of how your learning takes place what can you do to help your learning become more efficient and effective ?

Self-discipline is essential
Develop better self-discipline and self-control. Don't be led astray by distractions and temptations. Stay on task ! Take control !! You become the boss of what you do!! Tell those lazy little thoughts and feelings that you are now in charge - that you will learn and now !

Tell these playful and lazy critters that the party is over !

Depth of Focus
Select your depth of concentration. For a new topic don't drill down on small details too soon. Keep a wide focus to see the big picture first. (This saves cognitive load while getting the gist of the task or topic). If you are very familiar with the topic the drill down and get to it ! Mental downtime allows time for consolidation of new material (during relaxation and particularly sleep). Solutions to problems often suddenly arise (Aha !) when your mind is off task.

Prime relevant brain circuits. remember that WM connects to existing LTM knowledge. By preparing your mind to learn ("learning readiness") before class helps your learning effort. Recall the work of last lesson or last night's homework. Have ready to questions you need answers to  this lesson. This all helps prime those relevant circuits to the task ahead (eg. maths). And, the WM is on full alert listening for the answers.

Circuits Primed Learning Ready
Maths Circuits Primed

 Pay attention to your thoughts. Don't listen to those little lazy critters telling you that you are no good at something (eg. maths) Your beliefs which lead to to fear, uncertainty, doubt and avoidance are merely brain circuits and emotions forming mental barriers to your learning. As I told you in my Beliefs post your beliefs are old and probably wrong.

So please try again !!


                                    Brain Training

 Good news !! With training and practice you can improve your concentration skills, self-discipline, self-control and memory (both STM and LTM).

Brain Training Helps

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