These findings have implications for how students are taught almost any subject, including second language learning. They also indicate that the long-held belief that children have less working memory than adults may not be true because working memory resources are more rapidly consumed when the chunks are less familiar.
"We are suggesting that working memory capacity is not a fixed quantity but interacts with the familiarity of the elements that need to be processed. If everything is very familiar, it is easy to comprehend and build new knowledge. If all of the components are unfamiliar, the task becomes very difficult or impossible," said Lynne Reder, professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and a leading expert on memory, cognition and behavior. Reder also is a member of CMU's Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC) and the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
"This work has implications for how to optimize instruction, specifically that concepts should be introduced to students in a way that they have a good grasp and familiarity with those concepts before trying to combine them into more complex informational structures. These findings may also help to explain certain paradoxes such as why children tend to learn computer applications more easily than adults and may help to explain why they learn second languages better than adults," Reder said.
"Little kids may actually have more working memory than adults. They often appear to have less only because they have fewer knowledge chunks and those chunks are weaker than adults. Adults have wisdom 'knowledge and skills -- and scientists have been confusing that with greater working memory," she said.
Lynne M. Reder, Xiaonan L. Liu, Alexander Keinath, Vencislav Popov. Building knowledge requires bricks, not sand: The critical role of familiar constituents in learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2015