The Importance of Learning Ability and Working Memory in the Workplace

Jiaying Law

People Scientist

The ability to learn defines us as humans and it plays a big part throughout our lives without us even noticing it. 

From the moment we are born, we begin to learn about the world, from incidentally learning everyday life survival skills such as crawling, walking and running, to intentionally learning what could be referred to workplace survival skills. Such as hard/soft skills and acquiring new knowledge.

So, what determines how well and efficiently we learn a new thing? In fact, all of this has to do with our working memory, which reflects how much information we can keep in our minds and work with to achieve the learning goals we have (Baddeley, 1983; 1992). 

In this article, we will cover: 

  • The importance of learning ability in workplaces
  • Different learning styles
  • What exactly is working memory?
  • How does working memory reflect our ability to learn new things?

Reasons why learning ability is important for workplace success at individual levels and organisational level

By every means, learning does not stop after formal education. In fact, I’d argue that we as humans never really stop learning at all…

Learning is also a prominent part of our lives when we begin our careers, be it either applying the knowledge we learnt from books throughout university or learning new skills or knowledge to solve actual tasks in the real word. 

Here are some of the reasons why learning ability is essential in the workplace.

Importance of learning ability on an Individual Level

Learning ability determines how fast one can learn something new and how much one can learn in a short amount of time. This reflects the capability of reducing skill gaps in the shortest possible time frame. Provided that the world is evolving and technology is advancing, stakeholders’ needs are also changing according to the new environments. Unquestionably, we need to keep upgrading and integrating our skills as well as knowledge to keep up with that pace, leading to a better service to our stakeholders’ needs (Hogel et al., n.d.). 

Other than that, the ability to learn also helps with our well-being (Cooks-Campbell, 2021):

  1. New learnings mean challenges. 
  2. A challenge gives us a sense of growth. 
  3. When we perceive the challenges are meaningful and think we’re growing, we will be more productive, more engaged in our roles and less likely to burn out (Cooks- Campbell, 2021; Noe et al., 2014). 

Importance of learning ability on an Organisation Level

The learning culture of a company directly impacts its financial performance, either through improving the revenue or reducing costs. As for improving revenue, a team that is learning and growing in the organisation will bring more innovation, motivation and skills needed to compete with other competitors (Noe et al., 2014). 

In addition, cultivating a learning culture could promote employee retention, therefore reducing turnover costs and new hire costs. Undeniably, employees are the biggest asset to the organisation. An organisations’ financial performance will be more likely to increase through employees’ knowledge performance (Kim et al., 2017).

Different Learning Styles

Do you have your preferred way of learning new skills? Is it learning by doing or would you prefer to have a well-planned learning trajectory with specific learning goals?

 Concerning whether or not we have the intention to deliberately learn something new, our learning styles can be divided into two main categories — incidental and intentional learning strategies

Intentional (explicit) learning style

Let’s take learning a new language as an example to understand the difference between these two learning styles. To learn a new language, some will argue that first, we will need to memorise tons of vocabulary and dozens of grammar rules (Hulstijn, 2003; Barcroft, 2009). We intentionally and consciously use our own memory tactics to understand the intricacies of the language within specific time frames (e.g., in a class) and learning goals (e.g., a specific list of vocabulary or a specific new grammar rule to learn). This is known as intentional learning (explicit learning)

By using this learning strategy, we invest our cognitive effort into encoding those materials presented to us into our memory systems (Unsworth & Engle, 2005).

Incidental (implicit) learning style

In contrast, others would argue that the best way to learn a language is to immerse ourselves in an environment where the language is extensively being used. Over time, we may “pick up” some hidden slang and get more and more fluency without us realising it (Hulstijn, 2003; Barcroft, 2009). This is the incidental learning (implicit learning) approach. 

This learning strategy is more focused on learning by applying the language as much as possible until we can speak the language naturally without thinking. For example, we will automatically learn certain slang words while watching many Netflix series. It doesn’t necessarily need our cognitive effort for those materials to be encoded into our memory, rather it happens without us being aware of it (Unsworth & Engle, 2005). 

In real life, we may use both of them depending on the content we need to learn and also the context we are in. 

  1. If we need to achieve certain learning goals in a specific time frame, then we will mostly opt for intentional learning strategies since we need to consciously and constantly put in cognitive effort. E.g., learning a new coding language or needing to achieve a certain level of negotiating skills in two weeks.
  2. If we don’t have any specific learning goals and have super sufficient time (not having a time frame even) to learn something new, then we might mostly apply incidental learning strategies since we can learn by practising without the urgency to invest our cognitive effort. E.g., knowing others’ working habits after working with them for a long time.

What is working memory?

The cognitive effort needed for intentional (explicit) learning is very dependent on our memory. Speaking of our memory, have you heard of short-term- and long-term memory, but are rather unfamiliar with the term “working memory”?

At the beginning of the history of human-memory study, scientists simply divided our memory system into short-term- and long-term- memory. After having more and more experiments, these scientists gradually realised that our noble brain is actually much more capable than just “remembering” things for short or long duration. 

That’s when the new term “working memory” comes into play (Baddeley, 1983; 1992). 

In the graph below, you can see that several subsystems form the working memory system:

  1. Visuospatial Sketchpad: responsible for spatial orientation and produces solutions to visuospatial problems. E.g., remembering certain points on maps in our minds.
  2. Phonological Loop: responsible for articulatory rehearsal. E.g., repeat the new words we just learnt in our minds.
  3. Episodic Buffer: provides a limited capacity to store episodes or scenes. E.g., remembering the things described at the beginning of this section.
  4. Central Executive: the “controller” responsible for which pieces of information we pay attention to and switching between them. E.g., prepare ingredients that we need for mom’s recipe while listening to mom telling us the story about her herb garden.

 

Adapted from (Baddeley, 2000a)

A simple explanation: the headquarters inside our brain where all the important decisions are made

A movie from Pixar, Inside Out (2015) provided an easier and more digestible way to understand the mechanism of working memory systems (I promise – no spoilers here; Chamary, 2015). 

Imagine there’s a headquarters inside our brain where all the important decisions are made: 

  • It has limited workspace and there are only a few shelves for us to temporarily store information (episodic buffer). 
  • The information is stored to those shelves automatically after we see scenes (visuospatial sketchpad) or hear sounds (phonological loop) through a conveyor (our eyes or ears). 
  • The huge control panel in the middle of the headquarters is responsible for which pieces of information we will project our attention to, for us to process it (central executive) and which related information needs to be retrieved from the basement of the company building (long-term memory), according to the tasks at hand. 

What is the role of working memory in learning?

To successfully learn a new thing, we first need to form concepts in our minds (Cowan, 2014). 

What exactly do we mean by concept formation? Simply put, to produce a logical concept, we need to find clues from the information available for us to draw a conclusion about a new fact. With that being said, the more information we can hold in our minds, the more clues we will have to make sense of the new information. 

For example, if we need to learn a new list of vocabulary, we need to retain those words in our mind (i.e., put them on those shelves in the headquarters). The more words we can hold in our mind (the bigger the shelves), the more connections we can make between new and old information and the more new information can be moved to long term memory as well (Halford et al., 1998; Jones et al., 2007; Gathercole & Baddeley, 1989). We connect the new words (in the language we are learning) with words from our long term memory (in the language we already know). Connections of these new words can also be made with images or sounds from our previous knowledge, for example, learning the word for “dog” in a new language and connecting it to the mental image of a dog and the sound of barking.

Thus, working memory plays an important role by the time when we learn new things but the logical connections are not yet established (Cowan, 2014).

The two factors that directly impact the efficiency of the learning process – the capacity of working memory and how well the central executive functions.

 

The capacity of working memory (the size of the headquarter/shelves)

Obviously, the larger the size of the working memory capacity (headquarter), the more shelves we can use for storing the incoming information. Especially when a large amount of information is coming through our sensory organs, the people with higher working memory capacity will have more room to temporarily hold that information in mind and process them at the same time

Due to the higher amount of information that can be processed at the same time, people with higher working memory capacity will also experience a gradual decrease in cognitive effort during the learning process while the difficulty of learning tasks increases (Radüntz, 2020). 

How well the central executive functions (how advanced is the control panel in the headquarter)

As each of us has a limited working memory capacity, the central executive (control panel) becomes extremely important since it decides which information will need our attention. How well we can process only relevant information about the learning task at hand directly determines our learning performance (Vogel 2005; Kane & Engel, 2003). 

For example, we will perform better if we use our working memory only on the information that is related to completing our learning task at hand (e.g., remembering a list of new technical terms), rather than filling up our WM capacity with distractions (e.g., thinking of what should we eat after the learning session, Cowan 2010). In other words, people with lower WM capacity might “remember less” because they load up their storage with information that is unnecessary to the assigned learning task (Vogel 2005; Kane & Engel, 2003).

Before you go...

Without a doubt, we have been learning from the time we were born and will continue to learn until the time we close our eyes permanently. Learning ability determines workplace success at the individual levels and also impacts organisational performance. 

Throughout our life, we use incidental and intentional learning to connect with the world around us. When we need to achieve specific learning goals in certain time frames, working memory plays an important role in determining the effectiveness of our learning process. 

P.S. Learning ability without a doubt will become the most important skill for the labour market of tomorrow. That’s exactly why we’ve chosen to create a game-based assessment that measures Learning Ability Game!


Curious to learn more? Start a live chat for more info!

References

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Baddeley, A. D. (1983). Working memory. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. B, Biological Sciences, 302, 311-324. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1983.0057 

Barcroft, J. (2009). Effects of synonym generation on incidental and intentional L2 vocabulary learning during reading. Tesol Quarterly, 43, 79-103. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1545-7249.2009.tb00228.x 

Chamary, J.V. (2015, Aug. 30). How “Inside Out” Explains The Science Of Memory. Forbes. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jvchamary/2015/08/30/inside-out-science/ 

Cooks-Campbell, A. (2021, June 14). What Is Corporate Learning (It’s Not What You Think It Is). BetterUp. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://www.betterup.com/blog/corporate-learning 

Cowan, N. (2014). Working memory underpins cognitive development, learning, and education. Educational psychology review, 26, 197-223. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-013-9246-y 

Cowan, N. (2010). The magical mystery four: How is working memory capacity limited, and why?. Current directions in psychological science, 19, 51-57. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721409359277

Docter, P & Del Carmen, R (Director). (2015). Inside Out [Film]. Pixar.

Gathercole, S. E., & Baddeley, A. D. (1989). Evaluation of the role of phonological STM in the development of vocabulary in children: A longitudinal study. Journal of memory and language, 28, 200-213. https://doi.org/10.1016/0749-596X(89)90044-2

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Hogel, J., Brown, J. S., & Wooll, M. (n.d.). Skills change, but capabilities endure. Deloitte Insights. Retrieved September 12, 2022, from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/technology-and-the-future-of-work/future-of-work-human-capabilities.html 

Hulstijn, J. (2003). 12 Incidental and Intentional Learning. The handbook of second language acquisition, 19, 349. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470756492.ch12 

Jones, G., Gobet, F., & Pine, J. M. (2007). Linking working memory and long‐term memory: a computational model of the learning of new words. Developmental Science, 10, 853-873. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00638.x  

Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2003). Working-memory capacity and the control of attention: the contributions of goal neglect, response competition, and task set to Stroop interference. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 132, 47. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.132.1.47

Kim, K., Watkins, K. E., & Lu, Z. L. (2017). The impact of a learning organization on performance: Focusing on knowledge performance and financial performance. European Journal of Training and Development, 41, 177-193. https://doi.org/10.1108/EJTD-01-2016-0003 

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Unsworth, N., & Engle, R. W. (2005). Individual differences in working memory capacity and learning: Evidence from the serial reaction time task. Memory & cognition, 33, 213-220. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03195310 

Vogel, E. K., McCollough, A. W., & Machizawa, M. G. (2005). Neural measures reveal individual differences in controlling access to working memory. Nature, 438, 500-503. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04171 

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