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Effective Study Skills Part 2 – Working Memory

In Part 2 of my Effective Study Skills blog series, I’ll explain what your working memory is and how it controls your thinking.  I’ll also give you some ideas as to how you can apply these concepts and make your study skills more effective.  If you haven’t done it already, don’t forget to check out part one of this series on spaced repetition.

Your Working Memory

Just behind your forehead in the prefrontal cortex area of your brain is where the magic happens.  This is the part of your brain that lights up when you are paying attention to something, trying to recall a fact, or actively solving a problem. The working memory is what processes all the sights, sounds, and other inputs from the world around you to make sense of it.  It also determines which inputs are stored away in your long term memory and which ones aren’t important enough to make the cut.  Finally, it is what controls the process of digging around in the rest of your brain to retrieve a previously learned fact just when you need it. 

As you can see from the figure,1 your working memory consists of the ideas you are currently paying attention to.  They come in from your senses or are retrieved from your long term memory.  When you are studying something, the information goes around and around in your working memory.  However, when you take a break and then get back to studying, you are using the processes of encoding and retrieval.  The more times you go through the process of encoding and retrieval, the stronger the memory will be over the long term. 

If you read the first part of this blog series, you learned that spaced repetition has been demonstrated by hundreds of studies to work better than massed repetition.  This figure explains why.  Spaced repetition gets the information out of your working memory and encoded into your long term memory. Then it strengthens the neural pathways that make up that memory through the process of retrieval. 

Here’s another thing you need to know about your working memory: it’s really limited.  Depending on what type of information they’re working with, most people can hold four to seven concepts at a time.  For instance, if someone tells you a 7-digit phone number, you might be able to repeat it in your mind until you have a chance to write it down or dial it on a phone.  You won’t be able to think about anything else while you’re doing that because those 7 digits will completely fill up your working memory. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the psychology behind these ideas, check out this excellent blog by Scott Young.2  In the meantime, let’s talk about how you can apply what you just learned about your brain to making smarter choices when studying.    


Minimize Distractions:

Remember that your working memory can only handle 4-7 concepts at one time.  If you are listening to background music or a conversation in the next room, that will take up some or even all of your working memory.  If you are checking your phone, that will definitely take your full capacity of working memory.  When you are studying, make sure you dedicate your full brain power to the task at hand. 

Retrieve is Better than Reread:

Take a look at the figure again.  You learn things when you encode them in your long term memory, and you strengthen those memories when you retrieve them.  The processes of encoding and retrieval happen in between your working and long term memory.  When you reread your textbook or notes, you are focusing on the intersection between your sensory and working memory.  Rereading doesn’t require you to use either encoding or retrieval.  So, rereading doesn’t help you learn or remember.  Here are some activities that will be more effective:

·        Redo some of your homework questions.  Use the original homework to check your answers.

·        Read a section header in your textbook and cover up the rest of the text with your hand or a sheet of paper.  Try to remember as many facts from that section as possible.  Then uncover the text to see how you did.

·        Make flashcards and use them to quiz yourself.

·        Ask a friend or parent to quiz you on the material.

Write things down and get them out of your working memory:

One way to get around the fact that your working memory can only hold a small number of ideas at once is to write down some of the information you need.  For instance, imagine you are working on the following SAT Reading Comprehension question:

The use of a direct quote in lines 82-84 serves to

A.     sway the reader’s opinion with an appeal to emotion.

B.     provide evidence that supports a conclusion.

C.      instruct the audience on the meaning of a document.

D. demonstrate the supremacy of the State government. 

In order to answer this question, you must hold the ideas of “direct quote”, “serves to”, “82”, and “84” in your working memory.  When you go back to the passage to read lines 82 to 84, it will be difficult to understand what you’re reading because your working memory will already be close to capacity.  Instead of immediately rereading, use your pencil to put brackets around lines 82-84.  Now your working memory can let go of the numbers and have more space for the information in the text.  By writing down those brackets you were able to increase your ability to think by around 20%.

This same concept applies to showing your work when solving a multi-step math problem.  If you attempt to hold the numbers from the original question and from the subsequent steps in your mind, there will be no space left in your working memory for problem solving.  When you look at it this way, showing your work really does make you smarter.


Articles in This Series:

Effective Study Skills Part 1 – Spaced Repetition

Effective Study Skills Part 2 – Working Memory

Effective Study Skills Part 3 – Overlearning

Effective Study Skills Part 4 – Einstellung


1 Baddeley, A. D. (2018). Exploring Working Memory. Routledge.

2. Young, S.H. (2019). Working Memory: A Complete Guide to How Your Brain Processes Information, Thinks and Learns.