How much can children actually remember at once?

Working memory capacity varies greatly from person to person and is not fully developed until around the age of 15. Therefore, adults can typically handle 2-3 times more information than children, approximately 4-7 units of information.

Within each age group, there are also significant variations (Schewe, 2020). In a class of 8-year-olds, 3-4 students may have working memory equivalent to an average 13-year-old. At the same time, an equal number of students may have working memory equivalent to an average 5-year-old (Klingberg, 2013). This means they can only remember 1-2 units at a time, while the class average is 3-5.

Transferring knowledge to children

To ensure that a child grasps the most important information you want to convey, it is crucial to take working memory into account. An information unit is something that makes sense to a person and is recognizable. The unit can be processed as just that in working memory, a unit, even if it may contain a large amount of information. The more we have processed something and placed it in context, the more complex the units can be.

Meaning and recognition

Let’s imagine a situation from natural science where students encounter the concept of a chemical reaction for the first time. You pour baking soda into vinegar and observe it bubbling and foaming. You explain that this is a chemical reaction. Something is happening among the invisible atoms in the mixture. Atoms are changing places and forming the gas carbon dioxide, which creates bubbles and foam. Perhaps you even build a molecular model of the gas. For the students, this is a lot to digest all at once.

Units in working memory

They need to keep track of the concept of an atom, the names of atoms like carbon and oxygen, as well as gas and chemical reaction. If it’s the first time they encounter these concepts, each one will constitute a unit. For me, on the other hand, with many credits in chemistry, there is a wealth of experiences and nuances within the concept of a chemical reaction. I can immediately connect it to proposals for energy conservation, the mechanisms of new drugs, and similar advanced processes.

Connections and experiences

Working memory draws upon all the knowledge I have in long-term memory about various chemical reactions. The book ‘Super Brain: The Best Learning Strategies’ provides an elegant example of how familiar information is easier to process than unfamiliar information. Try to remember the letters ‘krktvae.’ Because they do not represent anything known, it is challenging. But if we rearrange them to spell ‘vakkert,’ it becomes easy (Schewe, 2020).

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