The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two

The number 7 +/- 2 shows that human working memory is severely limited in terms of the amount of information it can process and remember.

Most people can process simultaneously only seven chunks of information. However, some lucky individuals can process nine pieces of information, and some less lucky only five.

Working memory is the system where we keep temporarily (for about 5-15 seconds) a limited amount of information (usually about 5-9 items e.g. numbers, words, facts) before it is transferred to long-time memory or forgotten.

Working memory is like a sticky note. Although sticky notes differ in size, they all have limited space on which information can be written. Also, sticky notes get unstuck quickly and information is lost unless it is transferred to a safer place (e.g. a notebook).

If I told you a phone number: 1839091145, you would keep it in your working memory for a few seconds and then you would forget it unless you committed it to your long-term memory.

Unfortunately, this ten-digit phone number would be too long for those who have weaker working memory. They would forget it before they could remember it.

This is bad news since working memory is an engine for effective learning.

What’s worse, we cannot really improve our working memory.

The good news is that people with weaker working memory can use multiple strategies to ‘cheat’ it.
For instance, we could remember the mentioned phone number more easily if we chunked it to 18 39 1109 45 and connected the digits to some important historical events (e.g. 1918, 1939, 0911, 1945).

1918 – The end of World War I
1939 – The start of World War II
0911 – September 11 attacks
1945 – The end of World War II

Practical Implications

•    never ignore the limits of working memory of your child

•    don’t overload your child with too much information.

•    free memory slots for valuable information: avoid multitasking, distraction, stress, confusion,  increase difficulty gradually

•    develop your child’s knowledge. The more children know the quicker they learn new facts. They have more ‘hooks’ to attach new information

•    teach your child to ‘cheat’ working memory. Automaticity, mnemonics devices, and encoding strategies can override the limitations of working memory