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Working Memory and Classroom Achievement

What is Working Memory?

Have you ever had the experience of trying to follow a set of written directions while driving? If you are like me, you look at the paper and read the same direction over and over. (If I am really lost, I also turn off the radio.) That is an example of a working memory burden. Working memory is the term used to describe the ability we have to hold on to information while simultaneously thinking, processing, or engaging in another mental process. So in this example, I am trying to hold onto the direction I just read, “Turn left on Bay Street,” while at the same time trying to obey traffic laws and keep an eye out for other cars and pedestrians. My working memory just does not have the capacity to hold on to the direction while processing all that is going on around me. Therefore, I have to keep looking back at the directions.

On average, adults can hold on to seven pieces of information in their working memory at once. That is why phone numbers are seven digits long. However, each person’s working memory can vary depending upon factors like age and strengths and weaknesses. Younger students, therefore, have less working memory space available than older students. My father, who was a Civil Engineer, had a much better working memory capacity for directions than I do, based on his strengths and experience with navigating different road configurations all over the state. He never had to look at directions twice.

One way to picture working memory is a funnel leading to long term memory. Students temporarily hold on to information in the funnel to process or manipulate that input. Some of this information will eventually move to long term storage.

There is only so much space in this funnel to temporarily hold on to and process information. If too much information is input into working memory and the capacity is overloaded, some things get lost. Each of our students therefore, is limited by their personal working memory capacity.

How Can I Tell if My Students Are Struggling with Working Memory?

You may see evidence of an overloaded working memory when kids copy a sentence from the board and leave out words. Their working memory simply could not hold all the information necessary. Students with working memory difficulties may also struggle to decode words. This occurs not because they don’t know the letter sounds, but because they are unable to hold the first few sounds in their working memory while adding the next sound and blending this into a word that makes sense in context.

Working memory problems can also appear as a student who has not followed directions. Imagine, for example, that you ask your students to edit their writing by highlighting all the ending punctuation, circling the beginning word in each sentence, and underlining any words they think might be misspelled. There are many reasons why a student might fail to follow directions, including simply choosing not to follow directions. It could also be the case that the student forgot the directions because his working memory capacity was not up to the task.

Why is Working Memory Important?

One of the reasons why working memory is so critical to a student’s academic success is that working memory is a mandatory stop over on the way to long term memory. In order for any information to get to long term memory, it has to pass through working memory. The important content actually needs to stay in working memory and hangout for a while. Daniel Willingham (2009) describes it best when he says “Memory is the residue of thought.” (p.54) In order for our students to remember something not just for today or for a test, but long term, they need the opportunity to think about it. That thinking and processing occurs in working memory. I believe all teachers would agree that our goal in education is for the information that we present to our students get to their long term memory. Since we want our students to remember the knowledge and skills we teach for the rest of their lives, we need to truly understand working memory in order to facilitate our goals for our students.

Our students are required to rely on their working memory to perform each task we ask of them throughout the day. For example, think about the process a student needs to go through to solve a word problem. A student who has a poor working memory may struggle to read the problem and hold onto the critical information in their working memory long enough to process what operation needs to be used and write it down on the page to solve it. When a student fails to complete a learning task due to working memory burdens, they fail to get the full benefit of the activity that would have increased their learning. This creates a negative cycle that impacts a student’s rate of learning.

What Can We Do About Working Memory?

Whenever I talk to teachers about working memory the first question is always “How can I increase my student’s working memory?” As far as scientists know, working memory is more or less fixed and practice does not change it. (Willingham, 2009) But this does not mean we can’t use our knowledge and understanding of working memory to increase student achievement.

Since we can’t drastically change our student’s Working Memories, we need to focus on what we as teachers can impact. If you are familiar with the Serenity Prayer, I will adapt it here to teaching. Teachers need to not just accept but embrace the things we cannot change about our students. If a student’s working memory is low, we need to maximize whatever they have. We need to have the perseverance to change the things we can for our students. And we need to have the courage to know when the thing that we can change for our students is how we teach them.

I have come to believe that teaching is one of the most deeply personal occupations there is. Because teachers take their craft so personally it can sometimes be difficult for positive change to occur. But in order to help our students with working memory issues show academic success, we have to be the ones to adjust because our students can’t increase their working memory.

For example, think about giving directions to your class about stations. A typical teacher may describe anywhere from 2-5 stations at one time that students will complete over the course of the day or week. Students are trying to hold all those directions in their working memory long enough to get to the station and complete the task. If the student gets distracted or simply does not have the capacity to hold onto all the instructions, information will be lost. Once something is lost from working memory, it is gone for good. Since working memory has no long term storage capability, once it is gone the only way to get it back is to have the information re-input. So when you have a student who forgets the directions frequently, you have two choices. You can either get frustrated with the student, or make a plan to change the way you deliver instructions so that the student can get the information in smaller, more manageable chunks and provide a classroom procedure for the student to get help when they have forgotten directions. It is a missed learning opportunity anytime a child fails to complete a learning task simply because he forgot the directions.

We can present information to our students in such a way that is respectful of the limitations of working memory and prioritizes the available space for our students. If, as Willingham says, memory is what is left behind after thinking has occurred, we want the information students are thinking about to be the important stuff. The work of Milton Dehn, Susan Gathercole, and Tracy Alloway focus on ways to offload burdens from a student’s working memory. Providing checklists and written reminders for directions allows the student to free themselves from having to remember the directions and allows more room to process the learning. Teachers can also take complex tasks, like projects or experiments, and break them into smaller chunks. When you ask students to focus on just one part at a time, you increase the likelihood that their working memory will be up to the task of processing the necessary information successfully. When you give an assignment or plan a task for your students, consider the working memory required by the activity. Build in working memory support, break the task into smaller chunks, and provide frequent feedback. By making conscious choices in our instructional methods that reduce the burden on working memory, we can make a significant impact on student achievement.

Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. Print.

Dehn, Milton J. Working Memory and Academic Learning: Assessment and Intervention. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. Print.

Gathercole, Susan E. and Alloway, Tracy Packiam. Working Memory and Learning a Practical Guide for Teachers. London: Sage Publications, 2008. Print.

Written by

Jennifer Ruth is a teacher, mentor, trainer, and presenter. She contributed a chapter on word work to Best Practices for Teaching Reading by Corwin Press. She is committed to helping teachers to provide the most informed instruction possible to meet the ultimate goal of student achievement.

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