Updated: Feb 7, 2021
What is Working Memory?
When a learner uses one of their senses, especially during a new experience, they will register this action and store it in a memory bank. However, this memory bank only has limited space. Think of it like a glass of water; you can fill up the glass of water, once it is full it will start to overflow. Unless you do something with the water in the glass, it will continue to spill. Much like working memory, unless you actively ‘do‘ something with the information it will be replaced by a different piece of information.
One of the greatest tools in the coaching toolkit is the ability to demonstrate a skill. This allows the learner to see things visually and remember them to practise later on. Right? There are a lot of elements and moving components to any skill; they will all need to be thoroughly processed and refined. Could you achieve this by watching a skill once? Expecting the learner to watch your demonstration (even if faultless) and then to go and practise the skill and perform successfully, is almost an impossible task.
Do you talk to your learners, telling them what to focus on and what to look at? It might seem helpful, but you are in fact adding more information to their working memory, stopping them from focusing on the vital demonstration that you are performing.
That doesn’t mean ‘don’t talk’ whilst demonstrating complex skills; it means we need to find a balance. Coaches need to be mindful of the things they do to reduce a memory overload. Only focus on what is really important. Learning a skill takes time and with time, you can build each part up until it develops into an effortless, faultless and thoughtless performance.
What can a coach do?
Chunking - only give your paddlers small pieces of information that they can then process and add to their own stroke. The instructions and explanations need to be short and concise. So that the learner can easily decode and apply the information that has been passed to them.
Show not tell - when performing a demonstration, try not to say anything during. Avoid overloading their memory.
Questioning - this will encourage and enable the learner to think about the information they have and apply it to their own performance, increasing the likelihood of the information being stored in their long term memory.
Self-Check - provide learners with a criteria. This will allow them to check their own stroke against it, enabling them to self-teach and develop independently.
Peer Assess - using that same criteria, they can assess each other, whilst providing feedback for their fellow paddlers.
One Step at a Time - much like chunking, you should only give one or 2 pieces of information, especially when giving feedback. What is it that they really need to develop?
Task Task Task - the more the learner does (especially when related to the information they have been provided) the more likely they are to store the information in their long-term memory. This is even more reason to make sure that the demonstration and knowledge provided is accurate.
Demo, Do, Discuss - the three D’s. Follow this magic rule and you are easily going to follow many of the points above. Give a short demonstration (give them 1 thing to focus on and look at), set them off on a task (maybe start it with a question), regroup for a discussion; get them to tell you what they noticed, how it worked, what difference did it make, whilst encouraging them to link their findings back to the fundamentals.
Reduce memory overload
Pause Points - time to take a break; allowing the memory to restore is crucial. Some learners need time to think, time to digest, don’t forget to stop and allow the learn to think and ask questions. Don’t forget to stop before taking the first answer from the first learner to offer.
Reflection - running hand in hand with questioning, paddlers must reflect on the performances they have done and recall the ‘information’ they have learnt. This could be at the end of a session or at the beginning (looking back on previous learning experiences).
Recap and Recall - unless information is revisited and rehearsed, it will be lost. Link previous learning to current learning to forge memory bonds between ideas and experiences. Don’t forget, questioning will play a huge role - you can’t go telling them the answers.
Spaced Learning - break up learning with time, allowing crucial reflection and refresh of the working memory. Once the learner has been exposed to a new, or revisited skill, take a break and do something different - this could be a game, a drink break or a different skill. Once 5/10 minutes have passed, return the original skill and see how much they have retained. Find the gaps in their knowledge and focus on practising and developing the weaknesses. Spaced learning can be repeated many times and the spacing can vary from minutes to weeks.
Remember, be mindful of how much information you are giving the learner. Ask yourself, have they done something with the information that I have given them? And finally, try out a range of different strategies and see which are most effective for your learners.