How to Tap Memory Systems to Deepen Learning

The Role of Working Memory

Working memory is a temporary holding area for thoughts while you are using them. Oakley visualizes it as an octopus sitting in your prefrontal cortex, juggling a set of balls. The working memory can hold about four “balls” at once before they start dropping. That’s why we can remember two or three items we need to pick up at the store, but if the list is much longer than that, we’ll need to write it down. 

It’s also why many students struggle at following multi-step directions. It’s not a lack of focus. Their working memory simply does not have the capacity to “keep in mind” something like a five-step process –  unless they’ve practiced those steps so many times that it has become a routine that doesn’t require active thought. That’s why skilled teachers spend so much time at the beginning of the year establishing classroom procedures and thinking routines. These practiced routines can free up working memory space for students to learn novel material.

Race car students often have “a very high capacity working memory” that is more efficient at holding material and moving it into long-term storage, says Oakley. Hiker students may need more repetition and practice to retain the same material. 

“I lived the hiker experience,” says Oakley, a decorated engineering professor who tells her students about her struggles learning math and science. “I don’t have a great working memory, so in college I’d have to take notes like a stenographer and then stay up late to try to understand. And I would come to understand it so deeply that all the race car learners would come and ask me ‘can you explain this?’ It took me a really long time to get something, but when I got it, oh, I got it at a very deep level.” 

Because many students don’t understand their working memory, they study ineffectively, she says. They read over their notes or stare at a list of vocabulary words and think “I’ve got it.” And they do have it in their brain – while they have their notes in front of them. But working memory is short term. Hiker students, in particular, need concrete strategies for moving material into long-term storage. 

And that’s where the next two memory systems come into play. As Oakley says, “Our brain learns through two major pathways: the declarative and the procedural. And if you throw one out, it’s like saying, ‘Okay, I want you to be a faster sprinter. Now hop on one leg.’”

Understanding Declarative and Procedural Memory Systems

Declarative memory refers to facts and information that we can consciously recall “or declare” –  that we can pull out of long-term storage when needed to solve a problem, complete a task, or engage in a discussion. In contrast, the procedural memory involves knowing how to do something “by heart.” For example, once we master typing, tying a shoe, cooking a favorite recipe, or driving the route to work, it no longer takes conscious thought to engage in these activities. In fact, if strong typers think about where letters are on the keyboard, it will slow down their typing.

Oakley notes that the declarative system is the “speedy way of learning” and often the first way older students and adults acquire information. The procedural system comes more slowly and is engaged through practice, practice and more practice. 

The two systems work hand-in-hand to achieve expertise. For example, declarative memory can help a piano player learn an unfamiliar piece of music as they draw on their knowledge of notes, chords, tempo and dynamics. But once they’ve practiced a piece so much that they can play it without looking at the music, the piece resides in the procedural memory. 

Young children learn largely through the procedural system, says Oakley, which is why approaches such as Montessori have proven so effective in the early years. Adult brains take in much of their new learning through the declarative system. The best K-12 teachers draw on both systems to support student learning. 

Putting It All Together To Support Student Learning

“I’m really advocating a balanced approach,” says Oakley. Whether a teacher trends more toward lecture-based teaching or toward hands-on group activities, the key to success is “active learning” that activates both the declarative and procedural learning pathways. Even small changes in teaching can make a big difference to students as they “learn how to learn.”

Active learning is when “the student themself is grappling with the material,” says Oakley. “This really builds our procedural links in long-term memory. While you can be actively learning while you are staring at the professor, you can’t do that for very long.”

Simple strategies for integrating more active learning into a class period include: 

  • Offering brain breaks: Breaks are crucial to long-term memory formation. When students relax mentally, even for a minute or two, it gives their brain time to consolidate new learning. Think of it as interval training for the brain, says Oakley.
  • Use the Jot-Recall Technique: Pause while teaching and help students check whether they’ve moved the material from working into long-term memory. Take one minute and have them jot down important ideas from class, jot down a sketch to visually represent their learning, or jot down key ideas from previous classes that relates to the topic at hand. This retrieval practice is especially important for students who struggle with working memory.
  • Teach Students How to Engage in Active Recall: Remember the student who looks at the vocabulary list and thinks they have it memorized? Teach students to regularly put away their notes or shut their book and see what they can recall. Have them teach a science technique to a classmate, tell the story of photosynthesis to a pet, or create a study guide without looking at their notes –  and then go back to fill in the gaps.
  • Engage in Think-Pair-Share: Activities such as think-pair-share ask students to engage individually, engage with a partner and then engage with the class. In effect, they are interacting with the information three times in quick succession, helping strengthen their neural pathways.
  • Practice Interleaving: Interleaving involves mixing up practice problems instead of working on nearly identical activities over and over again.  This builds in active recall practice and cognitive flexibility as students have to consciously decide what information or procedure to apply to a given problem. And the practice builds procedural memory.

Celebrate “Desirable Difficulties”

Learning something new is often a struggle because the brain is still developing pathways to store the concepts. That’s why students are most likely to give up in the early phases of a new endeavor. But what if we encouraged them to make things a little more difficult –  on purpose! –  as a way of jump starting their own learning? 

“The best way to make rapid progress is to make things tougher on yourself,” says Oakley, drawing on the concept of “desirable difficulties”, coined by cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork. “Don’t just read a book or read a section of a book, see if you can retrieve those key ideas from what you just read. That’s harder.” 

MindShift