Monday / April 22

The Importance of Working Memory

If you believe you have an excellent memory and can “keep information in mind” easily, you probably have a teacher to thank for it. This would be the teacher who forced you to memorize a poem, the preamble, the periodic table or some other information. Although you may have been secretly cursing them for making you do something so “frivolous,” you were actually getting the opportunity to work your working memory. The ability to hang onto information is not practiced today as it was in the past. We have digital tools that have become our working memories. No need to remember your son or daughter’s cell phone number; it’s in your phone. Do you forget some of the many passwords you need for various online accounts? Not to worry, your computer can store them for you.

Our working memories are not often challenged in this age of technology. But it is very important to have a fine-tuned working memory for college and career.

Understanding and exercising working memory is a vital part of a brain-based classroom. With the new generation of assessments, it has become abundantly clear that the ability to hold information in working memory can make the difference between success and failure.

First, let’s define working memory. Working memory is the memory system that is responsible for the holding and processing of new and already stored information. For instance, as a student reads a question on an achievement test, he or she must comprehend the question to know what they are supposed to do, keep that information in mind, draw on long-term memories (prior knowledge), and take the new and old information to put together and either choose the correct answer or write the answer. All of this is done, of course, with time constraints.

Keep in mind these three components:

  1. Working memory helps students hold on to information long enough to use it.
  1. Working memory plays an important role in concentration and in following instructions.
  1. Weak working memory skills can affect learning at all grade levels and in all content areas.

The brain’s executive functions are found in the prefrontal cortex, the area behind the forehead, which is the last area of the brain to develop. Executive function includes the ability to pay attention, stay on task, hold onto information long enough to complete a task, and control one’s behavior.

Common symptoms of poor working memory include difficulty with mental math, poor comprehension as students forget what they have read immediately following the reading, and being unable to follow directions. We often believe these students are not listening or paying attention, but the truth is, their brains have not practiced using and expanding working memory. Working memory has its limits, but it can be stretched. Since working memory is stored in both sounds and pictures, we can use both to practice and build this system.

In minutes a day, working memory can be trained. Do you remember when the game Simon was introduced to the public? This simple sound and color game can be used to expand both auditory and visual working memory. This device is round and has four buttons which light up and make a sound. A round in the game consists of the device lighting up one or more buttons in a random order, after which the player must reproduce that order by pressing the buttons. You can find versions of Simon online, so students can practice this working memory task on the computer.

Put students in small groups and have them stand in a circle. Using your content, students can stretch their working memories. Ask one student to begin the activity by providing one synonym for a vocabulary word. The student on the left must repeat the word the first student says and then provide another synonym. The next student has two synonyms to remember and adds another. When everyone in the group has repeated synonyms and provided another, you can repeat the activity with a different word and a different student who begins. This same activity can be done for math as students are asked to add and subtract numerals in their circles.

Another task that involves visual processing is the “What’s the Difference?” game. Show students two pictures that have several differences. As they look from one picture to the other, they must hold what they see in their visual memories.

I think teachers have an extraordinary amount of work to do in very little time. These activities are short and fun. They can be done during some of the ragged time we find throughout our day. They don’t need to be done daily, but regularly will be more helpful. Improving working memory can make a difference for many students.

Written by

Marilee Sprenger is an adjunct professor at Aurora University, where she teaches graduate courses on brain-based teaching, learning and memory, and differentiation. A creative and compassionate educator, she began her career teaching prekindergarten and kindergarten. She has also taught at the elementary, middle, and high school level. She speaks internationally, and her interactive and engaging style allows participants to make connections with their classrooms and their students. She is affiliated with the American Academy of Neurology and is constantly updated on current research. She is the author of several Corwin books, including Differentiation Through Learning Styles and Memory.

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