1. The working and long-term memory

This session will take approximately 55 minutes to complete.

Session overview

For learning to take place there must be a lasting change in the pupil’s understanding and capabilities. But what can teachers do to support pupils to learn effectively?

In this session you will explore:

  • The impact of the working and long-term memory on learning
  • The limitations of the working memory

A model of the mind

As teachers, every day you are aiming to teach pupils new concepts, ideas, and strategies that they can use and apply inside and outside of school. For any meaningful learning to have taken place, there must be a lasting change in pupils’ understanding and capabilities.

An important factor in learning is memory. Over the past 25 years, significant breakthroughs have been made in terms of our understanding of how the mind learns, and how we can support the occurrence of lasting change. Having a good understanding of the research around memory and learning will enable you to integrate the findings into your practice, and in turn, help pupils to learn new information more quickly.

Listen to the module expert Ben Riley, the Executive Director of Deans for Impact, as he explains what we know about how pupils learn best, and the role that memory plays in this process.

How pupils learn – Benjamin Riley

Video transcript

Hello, I’m Benjamin Riley, the founder and Executive Director of Deans for Impact – an education non-profit organization based in the United States working to ensure that every child is taught by a well-prepared teacher. And part of what we mean by well-prepared is making sure that all teachers have an understanding of how their pupils learn. And so that’s what I’m going to be speaking with you about today is how pupils learn. And we’re going to be looking at that through the lens of cognitive science. The outline for this short video is as follows. I’m going to give you some good news, then I’m going to give you some bad news. Then I’m going to show you a bit of a model, a visual model to understand the good and bad news. Then I’m going give you a bit more good news and then we’re going to end with a quiz, so we don’t have much time – let’s dive in.

So, here’s the good news. Everything I’m about to talk about when it comes to how students learn is not going to change. As I’m recording this video, we’re living in a time of great global uncertainty but what’s good is that the processes by which students learn aren’t going to change because of the pandemic. They’re not going to change because of anything happening with technology. These are the products, the products of millions of years of evolution is what’s resulted in how our minds work and so that’s a good thing because it means we can actually plan around that. And further, I’m going borrow a phrase from my good friend, a cognitive scientist named Dan Willingham who I’m going to reference repeatedly, who says that ‘children are more alike than different in how they think and learn’. And thank goodness for that. It means that we can sort of understand this cognitive architecture – in other words, how our minds work – and know that that’s going to be generally true for the vast majority of students that we work with. Again, barring some cognitive impairment. So that’s the good news.

Now here’s the bad news. Those millions of years of evolution have produced minds that are actually not built to think, which is counterintuitive, right? I mean obviously all thinking takes place in the mind so what do we mean when we say minds have not evolved to think? Well, let me try to explain and I’m now going to bring in a super fancy model, what Dan Willingham calls ‘just about the simplest model of the mind’:

Diagram shows the relationship between working and long-term memory, with information being recalled from long-term to working memory when needed and processed into long-term for storage. Environmental factors also input into working memory.

Willingham (2009)

And here we go: our minds are basically over here (the working memory and long-term memory), they consist in this simple model of our working memory – the place where conscious thought happens, and our long-term memory – the knowledge that we’ve stored. You might think of this as the hard drive where we’ve kept all of our things that we’ve learned in life.

Now all of the active thinking that takes place in our consciousness happens here in our working memory and then, if we’re effective in educating, it becomes part of our long-term memory and you can see over here I’ve labelled something called the environment and I’m not referring to trees with deer running through them, although that could be part of it. This is just everything that’s happening outside of our minds. It’s literally the world and as you can see, our working memory interacts with the environment and then interacts with long-term memory.

Now the bad news is, as far as we know, there’s nothing we can really do about working memory. There is very limited capacity that we have to hold more than a few thoughts at any given time and it’s just fixed. But the good news, and here’s the bit of good news, is that we can add to our long-term memories as far as we know in virtually limitless capacity. The challenge is that because this (the working memory) is so limited, we don’t actually want to think – it’s hard, it’s effortful. Now of course there’s great exceptions to that, I’m not saying that we never want to think, but by and large we’re looking for ways around having to think and so the key again in education is to try to get students to think about material that we want them to remember. And you may be thinking this may sound very abstract so let me give you a very salient example:

Right now if you’re listening to me and you’re understanding what I’m saying, you’re doing so because you’ve learned the English language and so you can actually think about the content of what I’m saying rather than worrying about translating the words that I’m saying. Now for some of you who may have English as a second or third or fourth language, it may be a little bit harder. I might be talking a little bit too fast; I might have used vocabulary words you’re less familiar with.

And so this is important for teachers to keep in mind: is that all of your students are going to come with different aspects of knowledge, different things in their long-term memory. And the challenge for you is going to be figuring out ‘how do we get them to think about the things that I need them to think about and not overly burden their working memory when I’m not exactly sure what’s in their long-term memory.’ It’s a challenge and I can’t say that there’s any easy way to solve it, but that in some ways is the beauty of teaching: is that you are constantly trying to figure that out and do what you can to help your students improve what’s here.

So that was a very hurried introduction to the cognitive science of how we learn and how pupils learn and so now we’re going to have a very brief quiz:

Effective teachers can help their pupils improve

a) their working memory
b) their long-term memory
c) both
d) neither

Have a think for a second.

The answer of course is b) effective teachers can help students improve their long-term memory.

Working and long-term memory

As you have heard from Ben Riley, a useful way to think about memory is as a system, comprised of two components: long-term memory and working memory.

Diagram shows the relationship between working and long-term memory, with information being recalled from long-term to working memory when needed and processed into long-term for storage. Environmental factors also input into working memory.
Willingham (2009)

Long-term memory can be considered a store of knowledge that changes and grows as pupils learn. The knowledge remains in the long-term memory until it is needed, when it enters the working memory. For example, if you were asked the question how many legs a spider has, you would remember that the answer is eight. This knowledge has been drawn into your working memory from your long-term memory.

Working memory is the site of awareness and thinking, where we hold information that is being actively processed by our mind. The working memory draws upon both the environment and long-term memory to process things. It is very small in capacity and, unlike long-term memory, its capacity cannot be changed.

Within your working memory might be the things you are noticing from your environment, such as the temperature and light levels, as well as things you are currently thinking about. When teaching, it is important that you reduce distractions that will take the focus of the working memory away from what is being taught. For example, ensuring that there is a purposeful learning environment, free from distracting behaviours, or making sure the content you are teaching is pitched correctly in terms of your learners’ abilities. This will ensure pupils are focusing on the new learning, rather than other potential distractors.

The working memory also processes information into long-term memory for storage and later retrieval. It is important to note that the working memory has a very small capacity. Pupils with a learning difficulty that affects their working memory may have a smaller capacity still and will require information to be provided in small steps. For all pupils, the limitations of the working memory have fundamental implications for the process of teaching and learning. This is explored in the next section of the module.


Having heard from Ben Riley and read further around the Willingham model of the mind, consolidate your understanding of this topic by answering the following question:

  • What is the role of the working and long-term memory in the process of learning?

Prepare to share this explanation with your mentor during your next mentor interaction.

The limitations of the working memory

The fact that the working memory is limited in its capacity has profound implications for teaching and learning. To experience the limitations of the working memory, try to work out the maths problems below without writing anything down.

  1. 2×3
  2. 6×7
  3. 12×15
  4. 183×587
  5. 1983×1874

As the questions became more complex, it is likely that you did not know the answer and couldn’t therefore retrieve it from your long-term memory. You would have attempted to hold some information in your working memory and manipulate it. As the numbers got larger still, you may well have tried to remember and manipulate more than your working memory could handle. If this was the case, you would have experienced working memory overload and either become frustrated or given up, feeling that it was impossible to complete.

You may be able to recall times when you noticed that your pupils were experiencing working memory overload, and they put their head down on the desk or became disengaged from a task that they have been working on. If you had been allowed to write down the numbers, or you knew the times tables relating to the questions, the amount of information being processed by your working memory would have been less, meaning that you were having to hold and manipulate less information at the same time.

As a teacher you are introducing pupils to new information all the time, with the intention that they process, manipulate and transfer this knowledge into their long-term memory. Therefore, understanding the limitations of the working memory is critical. The way you deliver new learning to your pupils has a profound impact on whether they learn it or not.

Avoid overloading the working memory

Learning involves a lasting change in pupils’ capabilities or understanding. If you want your pupils to learn and retain new information, you need to avoid overloading the working memory, giving the knowledge a chance of becoming stored in the long-term memory. In this section, we will explore how the capacity of the working memory can be protected by building on pupils’ prior knowledge.

Considering prior knowledge

As you have already explored, an effective way to avoid overloading the working memory is to be able to draw on information from your long-term memory. When introducing a new concept or idea, building on prior knowledge that is already stored in the long-term memory can mean that you reduce the risk of overloading the working memory, as the pupil can apply some of their prior knowledge to help them understand the new content. As Ben Riley mentioned in his video, pupils may have different levels of prior knowledge around a topic. As such, trying to build on this can be a challenge for teachers.

When you are deciding how to introduce new knowledge, carefully consider the three questions below to help pupils use their prior knowledge to support their understanding:

  1. What existing knowledge and vocabulary do pupils need to have in order to be able to access and understand the new idea or concept?
  2. What are the key ideas and concepts that you want your pupils to learn?
  3. How could you link these key ideas and concepts to their prior knowledge?

The answers to these three questions will provide a starting place for your planning, and an understanding of where to pitch new learning. Listen to Teacher Educator and History teacher Lee Donaghy talk through how he assessed his pupils’ prior knowledge, and how he built on this in an effort to avoid overloading the working memory.

Building on prior knowledge

Video transcript

I was preparing to teach the module ‘USA 1945-75’ to my year 10 GCSE history class. We were focusing specifically on the ‘Red Scare’, a period of heightened fear of Communism and its threat to the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and we were working towards answering the enquiry question: ‘How did the international situation make Americans more fearful of communism?’.

In order to access this topic, I knew my pupils needed to know the international context at the end of World War Two. I was aware that they had studied World War Two in year 9, and so checking their prior knowledge of it, and re-teaching it if necessary, would mean they all had the foundational knowledge needed to help them learn the events, people and concepts that we would cover in this new topic.

I checked this foundational knowledge through a simple assessment task where I asked pupils to list the theatres and combatants in World War Two, as well as recall some of the key dates <show slide 1>. This showed me, almost inevitably, that some pupils had remembered more of this knowledge than others. This meant I had to re-teach this information, by re-capping events firstly in Europe <show slide 2> and then in the Far East <show slide 3> during the war. I then secured this specific knowledge in pupils’ long-term memories through repeated retrieval of the same information in each of that week’s lessons <show slide 4>. You can see that I actually gave pupils most of the sentence, and they only needed to fill out the date. This is because I wanted to really focus their thinking on the dates, as these were the key pieces of information I wanted them to retain.

The final thing pupils needed before accessing the new content was to understand the concepts of Capitalism and Communism <show slide 5>, and the differences between them, in order to begin to understand why people in the USA may have feared Communism. In my experience, pupils tend to arrive in year 10 with a vague understanding in this area, and often carry some misconceptions, such as Capitalism being synonymous with democracy. In order to bring every pupil to a similar level of understanding, we read about the two systems and then categorised their economic and political features. Again you can see that I have highlighted some of the key points in the text to focus pupil thinking towards the key elements of these concepts. I added questions on the key differences to the retrieval quizzes I used for the remainder of the week, again to secure this specific knowledge in pupils’ long-term memories.

With all of this foundational knowledge now secure, I felt confident that the burden on their working memories would be reduced when we moved on to encounter new knowledge.

The new knowledge I wanted pupils to learn was largely dictated by the exam specification <show slide 6>. Pupils needed to understand how events outside of the USA in the half decade or so after World War Two led to an increase in the fear of Communism inside the USA.

However, before explaining how I linked this new knowledge to pupils’ prior knowledge, I want to give one very specific example of the precise knowledge that I identified pupils needed. I focused in very specifically on the term ‘Red Scare’ <show slide 7>, as I wanted pupils to have a clear understanding of its meaning. I used a visual image from the period to demonstrate attitudes towards Communism in the USA and explained that ‘Red’ was used as a shorthand for Communism and Communists, before we wrote a working definition of the term ‘Red Scare’ that pupils could refer to throughout this section of content.

I finally turned to teaching pupils about the events outside of the USA that drove increased fear of Communism. <show slide 8> Focusing on the first series of events, the Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe, we returned to what pupils already knew about World War Two in Europe. Pupils recalled that Nazi Germany had been invaded from the West by the USA and Britain and from the East by the Soviet Union <show slide 9>. I was able to build on this knowledge to explain that many of the countries in Eastern Europe through which the Soviets had passed during the invasion of Germany stayed under Soviet control in the immediate post-war years, and that by 1950 many of them had Communist governments which were installed and supported by the Soviet Union <show slide 10>. The general, foundational understanding that pupils had of the USSR’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and the geography of the conflict in Europe supported their ability to assimilate the more detailed information about which countries became communist and how this divided Europe between a Capitalist West and Communist East. We were then able to drill down further, looking at specific events in 1948 and 1949, like the Berlin Blockade and Airlift, the partition of Germany and the creation of NATO.

<End slide show, back to talking head>To sum up, I secured the knowledge that pupils had previously learned about World War Two by checking their recall of key facts and dates about the conflict, re-teaching it as necessary and testing it. I also explicitly taught the key features of, and differences between, Capitalism and Communism in order to overturn some potential misconceptions. I then built on this foundational knowledge by clarifying and defining the term ‘Red Scare’, and then introduced new knowledge about Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe with reference to what pupils already knew about World War Two in Europe and how the conflict had ended.

Consider the following questions

  1. What existing knowledge and vocabulary did the pupils need to have in order to be able to access and understand the new idea or concept?
  2. What are the key ideas and concepts that Lee wanted his pupils to learn?
  3. How did he link these key ideas and concepts to the pupils’ prior knowledge?

As Lee explained, when planning his unit of work, he selected a number of key facts, essential concepts and skills that he wanted to ensure that pupils would be able to commit to their long-term memory. If pupils have a secure number of key components committed to memory, it means they can call upon them to support their thinking as the complexity of the learning increases. Through his planning he was able to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and master these critical components, and he ensured that he focused his pupils’ thinking on these key historical ideas.

Where prior knowledge is weak, pupils are more likely to develop misconceptions, particularly if the new ideas are introduced too quickly. It is important to ensure that the necessary foundational knowledge is secure, as Lee did, so that critical thinking or problem solving can be developed.

In the next session we will look at ways to introduce new knowledge to pupils that do not overload the working memory, and thus help to avoid the development of misconceptions.

Reflect on your learning from this session by considering how you have introduced new ideas or concepts to your pupils to date.


Consider a new idea or concept you have taught, which pupils struggled to understand.

On reflection, what knowledge and/or vocabulary did you assume that they had? How did this impact on their learning?

Prepare to share your reflections with your mentor.

Related ECF strands

How Pupils Learn

2.1 Learning involves a lasting change in pupils’ capabilities or understanding.

2.2 Prior knowledge plays an important role in how pupils learn; committing some key facts to their long-term memory is likely to help pupils learn more complex ideas.

2.3 An important factor in learning is memory, which can be thought of as comprising two elements: working memory and long-term memory.

2.4 Working memory is where information that is being actively processed is held, but its capacity is limited and can be overloaded.

2.5 Long-term memory can be considered as a store of knowledge that changes as pupils learn by integrating new ideas with existing knowledge.

2a. Taking into account pupils’ prior knowledge when planning how much new information to introduce.

2c. Reducing distractions that take attention away from what is being taught (e.g. keeping the complexity of a task to a minimum, so that attention is focused on the content).

2e. Linking what pupils already know to what is being taught (e.g. explaining how new content builds on what is already known).

Subject and Curriculum

3a. Identifying essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of the subject and providing opportunity for all pupils to learn and master these critical components.

3b. Ensuring pupils’ thinking is focused on key ideas within the subject.

Classroom practice

4f. Starting expositions at the point of current pupil understanding.