Can’t I just look it up?

Why is long term memory important for learning? 

IB teacher and Head of Physics at Sevenoaks School, James Tate looks at tablets, long term memory and problem solving.

Well, can’t I?

Whether specifically asked, or just implied, all teachers have been faced with the question “Can’t I just look it up?”. Students are often required to learn something but simply cannot understand why. Their lives are almost permanently connected to the internet; they can access all their music remotely, ask a virtual assistant for their to-do list, constantly communicate with friends via instant messaging and, when they want to know something, they “Google it”. With so much available at their fingertips, it’s easy to see how they feel that recalled knowledge is unnecessary. This may be largely true for their social lives, but when learning skills or methods, looking up each piece of required information is problematic as their working memory cannot usually handle it.

What is working memory?

According to Nelson Cowan, Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri

“Working memory is the retention of a small amount of information in a readily accessible form. It facilitates planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem solving”.

This is what we need our students to use while they are learning, whether analysing a text or solving an engineering problem. But the average human working memory will not allow an international phone number to be memorised in one attempt. Consider the phone number below:

+ 4 4 7 3 6 2 9 5 5 1 4 0 8

If it was shown to you quickly, it is unlikely you would be able to recall it accurately later. However, if we’re able to use our long-term memory, the task becomes much easier and there are easy ways of doing this. Let’s say you know that (+44) is the country code for the UK and the mobile operator prefix (7362) is the same as a friend of yours. It is likely they are already available from your long-term memory as single pieces of information. This leaves just seven pieces of information for your working memory. If you pair them and realise that the second of each pair is four fewer than the first, you have reduced the working memory requirements even further:

+44 7362 95 51 40 8
[long-term] [long-term] [1st item] [2nd item] [3rd item] [4th item]
‘The magic number seven’

As George Armitage Miller showed as long ago as 1956, an individual’s working memory can handle an average of seven pieces of information, rarely fewer than five or more than nine. During the process of solving an International Baccalaureate or A-level science problem, this capacity is likely to be exhausted very quickly. In order to structure an answer, students may need to know several pieces of information. For example, two equations that can be algebraically amalgamated, a couple of constants required for the calculation, values from the previous sub-questions, three numbers from the diagram at the top of the page as well as an accurate knowledge of the “principle of moments”. All of which the student has not learnt beforehand because they thought “Can’t I just look it up?”.

Surely this is where technology can help?

The number of students using tablets during lessons has increased drastically over the past few years. Surely, we should find that these technologically-advantaged students are progressing best as they can outsource their working memory requirements to a computer? Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be that simple.

Imagine the average student in the average classroom using an average-sized tablet. Once they have opened the task and zoomed to read the question and see the answer box, there is not a lot more screen-space available. They cannot see the required equations (which are in a PDF version of the data book in a different app), they cannot scroll up to the diagram or previous sub-questions without losing sight of the question they are working on. Although they can remind themselves of the “principle of moments” with a few quick taps in a web browser, this requires a different app that will probably take up the full screen. Phew – it’s tiring just thinking about it! By the time all the necessary information has been gathered, the student’s working memory is full, and they have forgotten what the original question was asking.

Tablets are wonderful in classrooms. They facilitate a wider variety of tasks, adaptive self-testing and reflection, collaboration with other students, real-time feedback from teachers and the availability of a wealth of resources in a fraction of the space and time. They are not, however, a sole replacement for more traditional resources. If our “average student” above had a paper copy of the data booklet and had previously learnt the “principle of moments”, they would only need to scroll up and down one page to obtain all the information they needed and solve the problem.

Long term memory and problem solving

Like all technology, tablets in classrooms are only advantageous if used with care. We need to encourage students to work electronically, for all the advantages that holds, but also show them how to reduce the load on their working memory. This means there is still a vital place for paper copies of scientific data books, literary texts, geographical maps and historical source material. At least until students’ tablets are the size of a standard classroom desk! The more practice students get where they can access the information they need successfully, the more that is committed to their long-term memory and the smoother the whole process becomes.


James Tate is Head of Physics at Sevenoaks School

More information on this study together with other articles can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning at Sevenoaks School:





Feature Image: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Support images kindly provided by Sevenoaks School


Christodoulou, D. (2020) Teachers vs Tech? Oxford University Press.

Cowan, N. (2016) Working memory underpins cognitive development, learning, and education. Educational Psychology Review, 26 (2).

Miller, G. A. (1956)The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. The Psychological Review, 63.