Sense and sense-ability: how to minimise cognitive load.

close up photo of assorted books
Photo by Leah Kelley on

The children I teach are often the ones who have given up on themselves (and their memories), made to feel that learning is for others, not for them.

I want to share some theories about how memory works. It’s useful to connect with these ideas and to start to be curious, how can your students be better supported to remember?

The main approach I, and other specialist teachers take, is to make learning multi-sensory, this means engaging many senses simultaneously. I feel the sense of touch is one of the MOST important, why?

The importance of touch:

Somatosensory Cortex

The fingertips…contain about 100 times more receptors per square centimetre than the skin on the back…more CNS neurons must be devoted to receiving fingertip sensations…the cortical area that receives input from the fingertips is huge compared to the area that receives input from skin on the back.

The first thing to note is that memory is clearly dependent on whether the student is focusing and attending in the first place. Are they comfortable, interested, do they feel safe?

This also involves the senses, we have seven in all which includes vestibular (balance/movement) and proprioception (knowing where the body is in space). See information about Sensory Processing here:

Sensory Processing

Working Memory has been big news in education for some time – the gateway to the Holy Grail: Long Term Memory. Working Memory is best likened to a shelf: where information is held temporarily – we all have different sized shelves. With a short shelf, information may get lost or drop too readily out of this area.

How to keep information in so that it gets transferred to Long Term Memory?

Working memory limitations may be critical only when acquiring novel information based on culturally important knowledge that we have not specifically evolved to acquire. Cultural knowledge is known as biologically secondary information. Working memory limitations may have reduced significance when acquiring novel information that the human brain specifically has evolved to process, known as *biologically primary information


NB Biologically Primary information is that which is processed by the senses.

More on that here:

Evolutionary Upgrade of Cognitive Load Theory

What happens to children who can’t remember?


Effective learning, at least at Primary School level, is really about memory. Children are required to retain information, so that they can steadily build upon those foundations. How can we ensure that ALL children remember and are successful?

Biologically primary information’ can be thought of as that which is processed through the senses: what we see, hear, touch, smell. If we want to limit the restrictions of Working Memory, we need to harness the power of primary information in learning!

The Baddeley model of working memory (2000) shows short term memory (STM) as split between visual semantics (Visuospatial sketchpad) and the verbal STM (Phonological loop). These two areas are not directly connected but interact with the episodic buffer, thought to transfer information to the long-term memory. It would appear that in dyslexia, certain information does not get readily stored in the long-term memory (LTM). The phonological loop has 2 components: the phonological store and the articulatory rehearsal mechanism.

Auditory information is held in the store where it rapidly decays. The articulatory mechanism rehearses the information so that the rapid decay is avoided. It also recodes, turning symbols into speech. In dyslexia, this is thought to be impaired, as tested using Nonword Repetition (Roodenrys and Stokes, 2001).

It is not just auditory memory which is an issue but the processing of language, is this new vocabulary, is there lots of abstract language used, how long has the speaker been talking??

Importantly, there is evidence to show that the visuospatial sketchpad is not impaired in dyslexia and may even be a strength (see meta-analysis by Swanson, 2006). This suggests that this can be used to boost confidence and improve outcomes, using areas of strength to support weaker areas, i.e. Hebb’s law: “Neurons that fire together wire together”. When taught simultaneously with the strong one, the weaker modality becomes strengthened.This may bring ‘dual coding’ or ‘visual learners’ to mind.

Gathercole and Packiam Alloway write about using Long Term Memory to boost Working Memory (2008). Personally, I like to use humour and harness autobiographical memory e.g. if teaching a High Frequency Word, I ask the pupil to make up their own mnemonic. For ‘said’, one child made up ‘Sally’s Allotment Is Damp! (he used to help her grow carrots!). Discussion also boosts memory (Reid, 2009).

Long-term memory is thought to comprise of the following:
1. Declarative (knowing that): semantic (facts) and episodic (autobiographical and experimental).
2. Procedural (knowing how). This is rote learning; doing something over becomes automatic.
Note: There is a PHYSICAL aspect to this e.g. driving a car, handwriting, riding a bike, reading. For some, this takes longer and for some it always requires CONSCIOUS effort.

How might you harness this knowledge about memory in learning?

Self-esteem is connected to being a successful and independent learner (Burden, 2008). Building strong and trusting relationships between teacher and child is an essential prerequisite for accelerated learning (Brooks, 2007: 31).

Give pupils thinking time! Pupils may often say, “I don’t know”, or “I can’t remember”. Sometimes, they have simply given up on their memory and stop trying. Help them to start to be successful and watch them flourish.

We might conclude from this that the best teaching to lessen cognitive load and improve memory would be:

Dynamic (involve movement)

Real life (autobiographical/concrete)

Explicit (telling) information (semantics)

Achievable – within the student’s grasp (building self-esteem)

Mind’s Eye: this may be using visuals or encouraging them to ‘picture’/visualise something.

Sensory: engage all of the Senses.



See also this blog on memory and learning:

Memory and learning




Baddeley, A. D. (2000). The episodic buffer: A new component of working memory? Trends in cognitive sciences, 4 (11), 417-423.


Brooks, G., (2007). What works for pupils with literacy difficulties? London: DCSF


Burden, R. (2005). Dyslexia and Self-Concept seeking a dyslexic identity. London: Whurr


Gathercole, S. and Packiam-Alloway, T. (2008): Working Memory and Learning, London: Sage.


Reid, G, (2009) Dyslexia: a Practitioner’s handbook. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.


Roodenrys, S. & Stokes, J. (2001). Serial recall and nonword repetition in reading disabled children. Reading and Writing: an interdisciplinary journal, 14, 379-394.


Swanson, H. L. (2006) Working memory and reading disabilities: Both phonological and executive processing deficits are important. In T.P. Alloway & Gathercole, S. E., (Eds). Working memory and neurodevelopmental disorders pp.59-88. Hove: Psychology Press.





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