General principles

When designing your learning and teaching experiences, keep these general principles in mind:

When you repeat something over and over again, it becomes automated and you don’t have to use active working memory resources. Students should do the same  they can clear their working memory by practising so many times they don’t have to think at all about that particular part of solving the problem. They will already have it automated and can do it without thinking.

How to activate existing schema to add to our long-term memory?

If you use something frequently in your long-term memory it stays near to the surface and you will recall it quickly. For example, your favourite song is usually close to the surface because you like it and it is something you relate to, so you will remember that song quickly. An old song however will take you a while to remember.

Example: Database unit experience

Students were failing a unit about databases as they did not understand this concept. Their teachers tried a different strategy that drew on students' previous experiences. An activity was introduced to first discuss and then to use spreadsheets as the students were familiar with these. Then the teachers built on those schemas to introduce databases.

Building on the schemas students already had about spreadsheets paved the way to introducing the unfamiliar database information. This approach, with others, resulted in students passing the unit.

Example: Lightbulb moments!

When you wake up in the middle of the night and have a ‘lightbulb’ moment where you remember the name of a person you knew five years ago - Ahhh that was their name! - your long-term memory has been sifting through other details to bring to the surface the name of that person for you.

For students, you want the information that is important to them to be close to the surface so they can activate an existing schema.


  • If it is new information, try to relate it to something students have worked on previously. 

  • If it is something students worked on the week before, provide a review first to activate those existing schemas. This uses fewer of the students' cognitive resources as the details are close to the surface.

English as an additional language

Keep in mind that students with English as an additional language will suffer higher cognitive load as they are trying to manage the different meanings of words. Refer to the References on the first page for Raina's research into this area.

(Please note - it's better to refer to the Online version rather than export, as it's always up to date)