Wednesday / May 29

The Brain’s Post-It-Note and Academic Success

Contributed by Tracy Alloway

I was surrounded by a sea of small and eager faces, the children all in neatly pressed uniforms. As part of a government-funded project, I was working with kindergarteners to understand what cognitive skills are important for academic success. I met Andrew that day. That 6-year-old boy stood out from the rest. He loved being at school and made friends quickly. In the classroom, he was always excited about participating and would raise his hand to answer questions. Andrew enjoyed ‘story time’ best, when Mrs Smith would ask the children to present a short story. Andrew loved telling stories and would be so animated and use such creative examples that all the children enjoyed them as well.

As the school year progressed, I noticed that Andrew began to struggle with daily classroom activities. He would often forget simple instructions or get them mixed up. When all the other children were putting their books away and getting ready for the next activity, Andrew would be standing in the middle of room, looking around confused. When Mrs Smith asked him why he was standing there, he just shrugged his shoulders. She tried asking him to write down the instructions so he could remember what to do. But by the time he got back to his desk, he had forgotten what he was supposed to write down. His biggest problem seemed to be in writing activities. He would often get confused and repeat his letters. Even spelling his name was a struggle, he would write it with two ‘A’s or miss out the ‘W’ at the end. Mrs Smith tried moving him closer to the board so he could follow along better. This didn’t seem to work; he would still get confused. Mrs Smith was at a loss. She always had to repeat instructions to Andrew but he never seemed to listen. It was as if her words went in one ear and out the other. On another occasion an assistant found him at his desk not working. When she asked him why he wasn’t doing the assignment, he hung his head and said, ‘I’ve forgotten. Sometimes I get mixed up and I am worried that teacher will get angry at me.’ His parents contacted me to see if I could help. They were concerned that Andrew might have a learning disability. When I tested Andrew on a range of psychological tests, I was surprised to find that he had an average IQ. Yet, by the end of the school year, he was at the bottom of the class. Two years later, I went back to the school to conduct some follow-up testing on the children. Andrew seemed like such a different boy. He was placed in the lowest ability groups for language and math. He became frustrated more easily and would not even attempt some activities, especially if they involved writing. His grades were poor and he often handed in incomplete work. He only seemed happy on the playground. Although I wasn’t able to follow up on Andrew, I never forgot him. His predicament inspired me to deeply research how we can support thousands of students who, like Andrew, struggle in class through no fault of their own. This research led to my book Understanding Working Memory, which is about a powerful cognitive skill called working memory that, when properly supported, can stop students like Andrew from remembering their school years as a frustrating experience.

In the below short videos my co-author Ross and I provide simple introductions to what working memory is and why it is important in teaching and learning.

What is working memory?

Why is it important for educators to understand working memory?



Tracy Packiam Alloway

Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD, is a professor of Psychology at the University of North Florida. Formerly, she was the Director of the Center for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan in the UK. She is an expert on working memory and education, and has published over 75 journal articles and books on this topic. She developed the internationally recognized Alloway Working Memory Assessment (Pearson Assessment, translated into 20 languages). She writes a blog for Psychology Today and Huffington Post. She has also provided advice to Fortune 500 companies, like Prudential, as well as the World Bank and BBC. Find out more about about Tracy at She is the author of many books including Understanding Working Memory, 2e


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