Working memory, expertise & retrieval structures

In a 1987 experiment (1), readers were presented with a text that included one or other of these sentences:

After doing a few warm-up exercises, John put on his sweatshirt and began jogging.


After doing a few warm-up exercises, John took off his sweatshirt and began jogging.

Both texts went on to say: John jogged halfway around the lake.

After reading the text, readers were asked if the word sweatshirt had appeared in the story. Now here is the fascinating and highly significant result: those who read that John had put on a sweatshirt responded “yes” more quickly than those who had read that he had taken off his sweatshirt.

Why is this so significant? Because it tells us something important about the reading process, at least in the minds of skilled readers. They construct mental models. If it was just a matter of the mechanical lower-order processing of letters and words, why would there be a difference in responses? Neither text was odd — John could as well have put on a sweatshirt before going out for a jog as taken it off — so there shouldn’t be a surprise effect. So what is it? Why is the word sweatshirt not as tightly / strongly linked in the second case as it is in the first? If they were purely textbase links (links generated by the textbase itself), the links should be equivalent. The difference in responses implies that the readers are making links with something outside the textbase, with a mental model.

Mental models, or as they are sometimes called in this context, situation models, are sometimes represented as lists of propositions, but in most cases it seems likely that they are actually analogue in nature. Thus the real world should be better represented by the situation model than by the text. Moreover, a spatial situation model will be similar in many ways to an image, with all the advantages that that entails.

All of this has relevance to two very important concepts: working memory and expertise.

Now, I’m always talking about working memory. This time I want to discuss not so much the limited attentional capacity that is what we chiefly mean by working memory, but another, more theoretical concept: the idea of long-term working memory.

Think about reading. To make sense of the text you need to remember what’s gone before — this is why working memory is so important for the reading process. But we know how limited working memory is; it can only hold a very small amount — is it really possible to hold all the information we need to make sense of what we’re reading? Shouldn’t there be constant delays as we access needed information from long-term memory? But there aren’t.

It’s suggested that the answer lies in the use of long-term working memory, a retrieval structure that keeps a network of linked propositions readily available.

Think about when you are studying / reading a difficult text in a subject you know well. Compare this to studying a difficult text in a subject you don’t know well. In the latter case, you may have to painfully backtrack, checking earlier statements, trying to remember what was said before, trying to relate what you are reading to things you already know. In the former case, you seem to have a vastly expanded amount of readily accessible relevant information, from the text itself and from your long-term memory.

The connection between long-term working memory and expertise is obvious. And expertise has already been conceptualised in terms of retrieval structures (see for example my article on expertise). In other words, you can increase your working memory in a particular domain by developing expertise, and the shortest route to developing expertise is to concentrate on building effective retrieval structures.

One of the areas where this is particularly crucial is that of reading scientific texts. Now we all know that scientific texts are much harder to process than, for example, stories. And there are several reasons for that. One is the issue of language: any science has its own technical vocabulary and you won't get far without knowing it. But another reason, far less obvious to the untutored, concerns the differences in structure — what may be termed differences of genre.

Now it might seem self-evident that stories are far simpler than science, than any non-fiction texts, and indeed a major distinction is usually made between narrative texts and expository texts, but it’s rather like the issue of faces and other objects. Are we specially good at faces because we're 'designed' to be (i.e., we have special 'expert' modules for processing faces)? Or is it simply that we have an awful lot of practice at it, because we are programmed to focus on human faces almost as soon as we are born?

In the same way, we are programmed for stories: right from infancy, we are told stories, we pay attention to stories, we enjoy stories. Stories have a particular structure (and within the broad structure, a set of sub-structures), and we have a lot of practice in that structure. Expository texts, on the other hand, don't get nearly the same level of practice, to the extent that many college students do not know how to handle them — and more importantly, don't even realize that that is what they're missing: a retrieval structure for the type of text they're studying.


Glenberg, A.M., Meyer, M. & Lindem, K. 1987. Mental models contribute to foregrounding during text comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 26, 69-83.