Working memory: recognizing our cognitive limits

Working memory and chunking – without understanding these vital concepts in human terms, we cannot design information systems interfaces that will work with people’s ability to retain only so much at one time in memory. If the interface does not communicate changing statuses and provide other memory support, most people will sit and stare at the computer and try to remember what to do next.

I became aware of this research literature in the first semester of my doctoral studies in cognitive science with the early published work of George Miller and other cognitive scientists.

When I began reading the first paragraph of his foundational article on this topic, I was enthralled by the way he posed it as a personal dilemma.

“My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer. For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals. This number assumes a variety of disguises, being sometimes a little larger and sometimes a little smaller than usual, but never changing so much as to be unrecognizable. The persistence with which this number plagues me is far more than a random accident. There is, to quote a famous senator, a design behind it, some pattern governing its appearances. Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.”

If you are as fascinated by this leading paragraph, I invite you to click on the link below to read what follows and share your comments on how this constraint can affect the way we use information and instructional systems, and how we should design them with this limit in mind.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review 63 (2): 81–97. doi:10.1037/h0043158

Available online at:

Research, theory, and application in instructional design since the publication of this article in the 1950s has centered around the concept of “cognitive load”and how to manage it through more efficient learning environments (e.g., less complex content, more sequenced instruction, etc.).




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2 Responses to Working memory: recognizing our cognitive limits

  1. Bill Adams says:

    I wonder how honest novice computer users are to a stranger. Nowadays, it is very unlikely for an adult not to have had some previous exposure and facility of use with computer systems, both hardware and software. As a person who worked his way through undergraduate college, there were employers who micromanaged our computer use by “counting” our keystrokes, using an automated system and later video taped activities in the workplace “on the floor” (to monitor productivity). Nevertheless, my point is addressing the insecurities a “newbie” might feel with software that is unknown to him or her with just the ability to obtain online or a printed manual for help. I would like this information to compare it with similar adults who are functionally (brain or mobility) impaired and how they might also respond to that kind of environment. I should not like to “insult their intelligence” yet not over-estimate what can be expected of them. I, myself, do not like being “talked down to” and therefore would wish to correspond this courtesy to anyone I dealt with professionally.

  2. Doc says:

    Thanks Bill for sharing your insights and concern about novice computer users and the need to bolster their working memory with an external representation of computer systems such as in a training manual and/or personalized mentoring to support their learning in a more personalized manner. Online and in-context help systems have provided some support for this area of need, but research into the needs and expectations of users in a given computer use problem area, context, and population is always useful for designing additional learning support.

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