Working memory is an important function of the brain that allows students to take in and retain information being given to them while they do work based on that information.
We all suffer from poor memory at times. Going to the grocery store and coming home without some of the things you wanted to buy, or going upstairs to get an item from your bedroom closet and forgetting just what it was when you got there, are common memory issues. Although we often associate memory problems with age, it is important to be aware of students’ available working memory in our classrooms.
Impacts in Education
Working memory is defined by Amanda Morin, a former teacher and parent advocate, as “the mental sticky note we use to keep track of information until we need to use it.” But everyone differs in just how much information can be stored and dealt with at a time, making this a tricky issue for teachers.
Working memory becomes an issue in the classroom as teachers try to give information to their students which must be used by the students to complete a task. For instance, a math lesson in which the teacher reads a word problem to the class requires the students to use their working memory to decide what mathematical operation to use, remember the numbers from the problem, and complete the actual math computation on paper. Students may also use their working memory while reading a homework assignment to work out the meaning of any new vocabulary words contained in the written material while trying to comprehend what they read.
Symptoms of Poor Working Memory
Children who have weak working memory skills struggle staying on task to finish an assignment. It may appear that a child is not concentrating or following instructions, but it is actually poor working memory that affects their learning. Other symptoms may be poor attention to detail, failure to follow instructions, or difficulty in remembering new words or processes recently learned.
Ways to Improve
The good news is that teachers have tools to assist them in supporting students who have working memory issues. Improvement in working memory can also be achieved through the following strategies:
Working memory can be increased by having your students listen to what you say and then repeat it back to you in their own words. This simple procedure helps students to activate their working memory by remembering what has been said, and increasing it by repeating the words. Find ways to allow the student to go back and repeat the information, such as using brief, spaced periods in which to review the facts.
2. Make a Connection
Committing information to memory has been found to be easier if an emotional connection can be made to the information read or learned. Experts suggest students can make an event personal to them—and increase their working memory—by thinking of how they would react to scientific discovery or something that happened in a history lesson studied.
3. Use Visual Aids
Encourage students to improve their working memory by taking notes to help them to retain information. Teachers can use displays of commonly used information, such as periodic tables, geometric angles, or vocabulary words, in the form of posters or permanent board postings. Teachers can provide organizers and outlines to allow students to improve working memory by learning to put facts into memory and retrieve them as necessary. Technology can be a great working memory tool by reducing students’ total reliance on their working memory and having the assists provided by spell-check or calculator.
4. Break it Down
Another way to ease the demands on the working memory of a student is to break down a complex lesson or project into smaller pieces. By being able to deal with just one part, the student may be more able to retrieve information from memory and apply it successfully before moving on to the next part. As you progress through each lesson piece, constant feedback is also important to provide memory support.
5. Move around
Experts have found that allowing students to move about the classroom, interacting with materials and information in ways that allow them to not only read it, but touch it and hear it, can keep information in working memory long enough to become long-term memory. Try station-based learning in your classroom where students can interact with the content in different ways to improve memory without making students feel like they’re repeating the same thing over and over.
Mere memorization of facts and dates is no longer thought to be the key to learning as educational standards stress the teaching of problem solving and critical thinking. Working memory is key to allow students to problem solve by taking what they know and using that knowledge to succeed.