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  • Dr Chris Moore

Working Memory: Ideas for the Classroom

Susan Gathercole and Tracy Alloway describe Working Memory as the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind for a short time. It is the mental workspace in our brain and I’ve always loved the analogy to a post-it-note.

Short-Term Memory and Working Memory can often be used interchangeably, but they are distinct. Short-Term Memory simply involves storage of information, such as remembering a message that someone gives us. Working Memory differs in that it requires both storage and processing. When we are travelling to an unfamiliar location, we match the surrounding landmarks to the directions that we’ve been given. Similarly, when students carry out mental arithmetic, they are holding the numbers in mind and applying an operation to them. We draw upon knowledge stored in our Long-Term Memory when we tell someone what we had for dinner last night or give a factual statement about a country. The key message is that Working Memory takes effort.

We can think about two components of this memory and how these align with tasks and routines within the classroom:

Verbal Working Memory: This is associated with language-based information. Students use this for remembering verbal instructions and questions, matching sounds to letters in reading activities, remembering what to say during a turn-taking game or recognising patterns or sequences of numbers which are called aloud.

Visual Spatial Working Memory: This is linked to information related to locations, pictures, movement and the physical properties of objects. Students use the Visual Spatial component when they are keeping track of their place in a reading activity, sequencing pictures, carrying over numbers in a maths problem, copying information from the whiteboard and considering how a shape would appear from different orientations.

Why is it important to know about Working Memory?

Working Memory is a key predictor of later academic achievement. Research by both Susan Gathercole and Tracy Alloway has indicated that students with higher levels of attainment have tended to perform better on tests of Working Memory. It has been shown to be a better predictor of long-term academic performance than IQ, as it measures our potential to learn rather than what we already know. There is also evidence that those students with a poorer Working Memory are more at risk of educational under-achievement. This suggests that our understanding and management of Working Memory difficulties will have important implications for future outcomes.

This brings us to the nature of Working Memory. Our post-it-note is limited in terms of how much space it has, how well it can manage information delivered quickly and how much effort it takes to store and process the information. It can be overloaded by distracting stimuli or tasks which involve processing too much at one time. Working Memory has its most rapid period of growth during the primary-age years, but this process still continues into early adulthood. Ross Alloway and Tracy Alloway have a nice rule of thumb for Working Memory at different ages. A 5 – 6 year old could be expected to remember 2 instructions, a 7 – 9 year old could manage 3 instructions and a 10 – 12 year old could cope with 4 instructions. However, an important consideration is that everyone’s Working Memory is different. You may have an 8 year old student in your class with the Working Memory of a 5 year old or a student whose memory is better than expected for their age. You will probably recognise this reality in your daily interactions – you may instinctively know that some students can engage in a task with just one or two instructions, while others require the information to be chunked and repeated more often.

These individual differences in the post-it-note mean that we need to be more mindful of the signs of Working Memory difficulties. Students with such difficulties won’t be able to “catch up” on their own or simply try harder – they will need appropriate differentiation and active support to mitigate their difficulties.

What are the signs of Working Memory difficulties?

There are several indicators that a student’s working memory may have a small capacity or is more prone to becoming overloaded. It’s important that we stay curious about behaviour - looking around the classroom or lacking persistence with a task may be a sign that an instruction or direction has been forgotten or that information has not been repeated often enough to help the student retain it. Some examples of the indicators are outlined below.

· Forgetting instructions and information: Failing to recall what was said or only remembering the first step or part. This may also impact on memory of routines.

· Place keeping errors. Repeating or skipping over words in a sentence; counting an item more than once; starting the counting-on process at the wrong place.

· Struggling to store and process information simultaneously – finding it hard to remember several sentences and identify the rhyming words; struggling to keep words in mind when comprehending a story; forgetting information when listening to a number sequence of 0 - 20 and trying to repeat back the missing numbers.

· Lack of concentration. Appearing easily distracted; zoning out from time to time; difficulty with watching and/or listening to teaching attentively.

· Inconsistent performance: Offering an answer to a question but forgetting what to say when called upon; having a start-stop performance in a task; giving up on a task completely.

How can we support Working Memory?

There are lots of ways that we can support students and I’ve used the following four themes when considering strategies and accommodations which may be beneficial. Given the possibility of a wide variation of working memory capacities amongst the students in your class, it’s important that we think about adapting the environment and differentiating the curriculum, in addition to more individualised support.

Reduction & Repetition

· Shorten what you say and speak at a slower pace.

· Ensure that the student’s attention is gained before an instruction is delivered. Emphasise what to listen for, if appropriate, before delivering it.

· Repeat information and encourage the student to ask for reminders.

· Check the student’s retention by asking them to explain what they were asked to do.

· Reinforce verbal instructions using visuals, gestures and active demonstrations.

· Avoid grammatically complex sentence structure – for a maths problem, consider asking the question and then giving the quantities.

· Break down tasks into small steps – number these steps or depict them in a visual checklist, in order to help the student keep their place.

· Use prompts – “What is the question asking you to do?”; “What’s the first step?”; “What do you need to do next?”.

Familiar and Meaningful

· Recap recent teaching and schedule time to reflect on what has been learnt today.

· Create clear links between a new task and previous learning as a means of accessing knowledge in long-term memory - “Where/When have you seen something like this before?”.

· Help the student to visualise and position the information – relate it to a picture and connect it to an object or place.

· Make topics and concepts more meaningful through categorisation and references to real-world experiences or the student’s personal interests.

· Encourage the use of mnemonics and acronyms to remember tricky spellings or maths procedures.

· Show sample writing pieces or worked-out maths problems as a quick reference for independent working.

· Encourage older primary-age children to verbally rehearse information. This will need to be modelled first.

· Allow for notetaking and voice recording.

Practical and Accessible

· Nearby wall charts and posters can key vocabulary and maths concepts.

· Provide post-it-note reminders of instructions or difficult spellings.

· Keep concrete resources close to hand – word banks for writing tasks, number lines, cubes and counters, multiplication square, etc.

· Encourage highlighting of key words or symbols to aid place-keeping.

· Add structure to writing tasks through the use of numbered bullet points, spider diagrams and mind maps.

· Consider a memory card for breaks in tasks, helping the student to remember where they left off and what they still have to do when the task resumes.

· Keep key information displayed on the whiteboard in large font or store it in the Reminders/Notes app on an iPad for later review.

Fun and Interactive

· For younger children, try hiding toys in sand or chickpea trays and seeing if they can remember the locations after a short time.

· Have them watch a number of toys for a short period and try to remember them verbally or by drawing/writing their names when they are hidden from view.

· Show a range of items, remove one when the student isn’t looking and ask “What’s missing?”.

· Taking turns to add items to a list and recall them as the list gets bigger – “I went to the supermarket and bought a…”.

· Play snap games using picture cards – consider relating to the student’s interests (e.g. dinosaurs, superheroes, Pokemon, etc) to boost motivation for the game.

· Teach information through memorable songs, tapping/drumming rhythms or silly stories.

· Arrange for a group of students to act as “memory buddies” during a task or routine.

References and Further Reading

· Alloway, T.P. (2019). How Can I Remember All That? Simple Stuff to Improve Your Working Memory. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

· Alloway, T.P. & Alloway, R.G. (2015). Understanding Working Memory (2nd Edition). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

· Bransetter, R. (2014). The Everything Parent’s Guide To Children With Executive Functioning Disorder. Avon: Adams Media.

· Gathercole, S.E. & Alloway, T.P. (2008). Working Memory & Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

· Lauchlan, F. & Carrigan, D. (2013). Improving Learning Through Dynamic Assessment: A Practical Classroom Resource. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


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