Designing for learning

Understanding why learners should record things

When you study to be a teacher, you spend a lot of your time learning how to teach – but not necessarily understanding how people learn.  And one of the things they don’t make you aware of when you’re qualifying to be a teacher is the role of memory when it comes to learning.

What they don’t make you aware when you’re qualifying to be a teacher is that there is this thing called working memory (sometimes it’s known as short-term memory) and this thing called long term memory.  Information is stored in the working memory when you first receive them, but you’ve got to do quite a bit of work to move the information from the working to long term memory.  The idea being, once information is embedded in long term memory, it stays there until it is required.  Academics often talk about the notion of transfer – the ability to apply information or knowledge to different contexts.  This is quite heavily reliant on the learner’s long-term memory, which in turn is reliant on the effectiveness of the learner’s working memory.

Sweller, van Merrienboer and Paas (1998, p.252) wrote:

Working memory is capable of holding only about seven items or elements of information at a time (Miller, 1956). Furthermore, because working memory is most commonly used to process information in the sense of organizing, contrasting, comparing, or working on that information in some manner, humans are probably only able to deal with two or three items of information simultaneously when required to process rather than merely hold information. Any interactions between elements held in working memory themselves require working memory capacity, reducing the number of elements that can be dealt with simultaneously.

In every learning situation, we require learners to process the information that is being presented to them. Sweller et al (1998) is pointing out that to receive and  process information at the same time can be difficult for most learners.  Sweller et al (1998) also says that you can only hold so much information in your working memory (ie in your head) at any given time.  So to expect students to remember huge chunks of information and process this at the same time (though not impossible) is quite straining on the learner. It could also be potentially demotivating for some.   

What could we do to help learners cope with the limits of their working memory?

This is where mediating tools come in. This would be anything that could and would reduce the strain on the working memory in a learning environment. This is especially applicable in situations where there is a lot of observing or listening. Though, this is not to say that it isn’t applicable in active learning situations.

The idea behind mediating tools, for me, is a tool which helps me record information as I receive it.  In the past, this used to be a wire-bound notebook, stuffed to the gills with bits of paper which occasionally required judicious taming, but this is slowly migrating to the cloud via my smartphone.  If I access this information and apply it frequently, it will eventually embed itself into my long term memory. At that point, it becomes second nature, natural.

Sweller et al (1998) reminds me to design learning environments with the limits of working memory in mind.  For me, this means

  • incorporating spaces or spots in my learning designs for learners to stop and catch their breath, to quietly sift through the information.
  • create opportunities for learners to write things down, take pictures, record lectures, make notes
  • presenting information in formats that would be easier to digest – ie using plain English writing, infographics, concept maps, short videos, 
  • and where able and where it makes sense, use the affordances in some technology tools to do all of the above.


Sweller, J., Van Merrienboer, J. J., & Paas, F. G. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational psychology review, 10(3), 251-296. Retrieved 10 October 2013 from


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