Obsessed with Working Memory: Identifying Overload

To review earlier posts in this series:

You can define working memory.

You can explain why it’s so important.

You can anticipate WM overload even before it happens.

In this post, we’ll see how you can identify WM overload when it does happen.

“Wait…Back Up A Step…”

Why should you even want to identify WM overload when it happens?

After all, the last post was about anticipating it. If teachers can predict when WM overload might happen, shouldn’t we just prevent it every time?

That’s a reasonable question. The answer is: not exactly.

First: students have different levels of WM capacity. So, you might anticipate overload for most of your students. But you might not get the level of WM challenge exactly right every time.

Second: you want to nudge up against WM boundaries from time to time. Remember (as we’ve discussed in MANY posts), some level of desirable difficulty improves learning.

One way to raise difficulty is to increase the WM challenge. If you don’t test WM boundaries every now and then, you might not be challenging your students enough.

And, when you do test those boundaries, you’re likely to edge over that boundary from time to time.

Going beyond WM limits is a normal part of teaching. Doing so isn’t a terrible thing.

But: doing so without a) realizing it, and b) fixing it right away — now THAT’S a terrible thing.

“Okay, How Do I Identify WM Overload?”

The easy method. Look at the student’s face. If you see a desolately blank stare, you know what just happened: WM crash.

For fun, watch this video. Unless you’re a biology teacher, you’ll feel your WM curl up like a tiny helpless rodent. You might hear it whimper. Go look in the mirror. THAT’S the face you’re looking for.

“Are There Harder Methods?”


Working memory is a cognitive system that holds and processes information. When students struggle to do both at the same time, THAT’S WM overload.

Some examples will clarify.

If I tell students to follow these 6 instructions, they have to a) HOLD all six instructions, and b) PROCESS them one-at-a-time. If they can’t do that, that’s WM overload.


If students can’t gather information from several websites into one Word document, they’re struggling to a) PROCESS the logic of the work their doing, while b) HOLDING their place in that logic.

Or, here’s one you see almost every day.

A student raises her hand. I say: “wait just a moment,” and finish a sentence or two. When I come back to her and say “what’s your question,” she looks abashed. Sheepishly, she admits: “I forgot.”

In this case, my student had to HOLD her question. And, she had to PROCESS new information: the sentence or two that I spoke. That combination went beyond her WM limits.

Or, this one used to make me CRAZY:

A student raises his hand. I say: “wait just a moment,” and remind the class that the paper is due Friday at 3 pm, in the box outside my office.

When I come back to that student and say “what’s your question,” he earnestly asks: “When is the paper due, and where should I turn it in?”

I used to get SO MAD at that student.

But now I know, I overloaded his WM. He was HOLDING his question so hard that he couldn’t PROCESS the information I was giving. (Joseph, if you’re reading this blog, I apologize.)

Once you start looking for them, you’ll see holding while processing problems all the time.

When you see those problems, you know that your students have run out of WM.

“Got It. Anything Else?”

Let’s do one more.

Human working memory systems necessarily interact with our attention systems.

If your students are not paying attention in a way that surprises you, you might have a WM problem, not an attention problem.

That is: if you think to yourself, “They’re usually so focused during 2nd period. I wonder what’s going on today? They’re kinda off the wall… ,” stop and consider the WM demands of the work they’re doing.

They might be exhibiting an attentional symptom of a working memory problem.


We’ve spent lots of time ANTICIPATING and IDENTIFYING working memory problems.

In the next two posts, I’ll FINALLY talk about solving those problems.

tags: category: L&B Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *