6 Ways to Make Working Memory Work for You

When you hear and remember a phone number long enough to dial it, you are using working memory. Usually, the sequence of numbers flutters away on the breeze as soon as you've finished dialing it.

But did you know that if you sang the phone number to yourself in a song or chanted it in a rhythm or made up a story about the numbers involved, you would be able to remember it longer?

It turns out that our working memory -- the information we can pull out of file drawers in our brains and work with -- can be primed for action.  

According to researcher and educator Peter Doolittle, when we learn new information, we need to act immediately to make it part of what we already know.  We have to bring out a welcoming committee and surround that new information with all our creative energy in order to make it feel right at home.  

Doolittle recommends two main strategies for waking up your working memory, giving it a thermos full of coffee, and sending it on its morning commute to get some work done.  First, create images and stories about the new facts.  Make analogies and visualize the new information in action.  He calls this "thinking elaborately and illustratively".

Second,  organize your new learning.  Did you hear about a cause? Did you see an example at work? Did you learn a new category for a concept that is already familiar?  (Need help with this kind of thinking? Check out the Non-Fiction Worksheet resources that show these kind of active reading strategies.) 

In order to use both strategies effectively, you have to act quickly and you have to get support. Ask questions right now about what you don't understand, so that you don't try to store information that you can't vividly see in your imagination!  

Here's an analogy to show why time and help are so key.  Imagine you are watching a cooking show and see a lemon meringue pie being made. You hastily write down the recipe as you watch.  At one point in the show, the cable blips out, and you're not sure what the TV chef told you to do after separating the eggs.  It might have been "beat the whites", but it might also have been "leave the whites".  You make some intentionally vague letters that could be equally interpreted as "leave" or "beat", finish watching the show, and tuck the recipe away in a drawer.

Months later, you decide you want to make that pie for you best friend's birthday.  At that point, you stare in befuddlement at the piece of paper containing the recipe, unable to decipher your own scrawl and totally unsure of what to do with those eggs.  You saved information that you didn't understand in "images" (writing) that wasn't vivid.  That knowledge is not part of your working memory!  

When you learn something new, if you don't take the time to ask what it means right now, your only hope is to store some kind of vague image of it in your mind.  You didn't understand it when you first heard it, so you stored a blobby shadow of it.  How will you be able to correctly interpret that blobby shadow later, out of context, and far removed from the source of the information?   

In order to learn and retain something new, you have to be active and you have to be honest with yourself about what you do and don't understand. As Doolittle puts it, "What we process, we learn."  Here are six ways you can practice processing new information:

  1. take notes in your own words, not the book's or your teacher's
  2. explain the new idea you just learned to someone else
  3. draw a picture or take cartoon notes
  4. make up a story about the new information, bringing inanimate objects to life with motivations, conflicts, and personalities
  5. make up an analogy
  6. make up a  rhyme, chant, or other mnemonic device (Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally...)

If you want to learn more about Doolittle's work with working memory, check out his short but engaging TEDTalk here.

And if you want tips on how to apply working memory to vocabulary in particular, check out the post "Memorizing Vocab".