Parents, Teachers

Working memory to support learning…

The development of working memory is crucial to pupil engagement and academic success, especially when it comes to reading. In order to retain what they are learning; pupils need to develop strategies which support their memory and ultimately improve their ability to retain information and ultimately learn. The following blog post will look at the various areas of memory and suggest strategies and resources which may help.

Working memory refers to the ability that we have to hold and manipulate information in the mind for short periods of time. In their fantastic Ed Talks working memory experts Tracy and Ross Alloway refer to it as “the brain’s post it note”.

There is a limit to the amount of information that can be held in the Working Memory, and if this limit is exceeded, then at least some of what we are trying to remember is forgotten. How much information can be stored is affected by many factors, particularly in the school environment, where background noise can affect retention.

Working Memory helps children hold on to information long enough to use it and it plays an important role when it comes to concentration and following instructions. Weak Working Memory skills can affect learning across the curriculum in many different subject areas including reading, writing and mathematics. Good working memory skills help pupils retain important information, such as instructions from the teacher, in the face of distractions from classmates, wall displays, noises outside, and their thoughts and feelings.

For those wanting to learn more about working memory, Professor Susan E. Gathercole and Dr Tracy Packiam Alloway have put together a fantastic classroom guide, providing an introduction to the learning difficulties commonly faced by children with very poor working memory skills. These are described and illustrated with case studies and a programme of classroom support for is outlined. You can access the guide HERE.

Strategies to enhance working memory

  1. Give directions in multiple formats
    Pupils benefit from being given directions in both visual and verbal formats. In addition, their understanding and memorising of instructions could be checked by encouraging them to repeat the instructions given and explain their meaning. Examples of what needs to be done are also often helpful for enhancing memory of directions.
  2. Teach students to over-learn material
    Pupils should be taught the necessity of ‘over-learning’ new information. Often, they practice only until they are able to perform one error-free repetition of the material. However, several error-free repetitions are needed to solidify the information.
  3. Teach students to use visual images and other memory strategies
    Another memory strategy that makes use of a cue is one called ‘word substitution’. The substitute word system can be used for information that is hard to visualise, for example, for the word ‘occipital’ or ‘parietal’. These words can be converted into words that sound familiar and can be visualised. The word ‘occipital’ can be converted to ‘exhibit hall’ (because it sounds like ‘exhibit hall’). The student can then make a visual image of walking into a museum and seeing a big painting of a brain with big bulging eyes (occipital is the region of the brain that controls vision). With this system, the word the student is trying to remember actually becomes the ‘cue’ for the visual image, that then ‘cues’ the memory of and definition of the word.
  4. Give teacher-prepared handouts prior to classes
    Lessons and series of oral directions should be reinforced by teacher-prepared handouts. The handouts for lessons could consist of a brief outline or a partially completed graphic organiser that pupils complete during the lesson. Having this information enables pupils to identify the information given and organise the information effectively in their notes. Both of these activities enhance memory of the information as well. The use of Post-Its to jot information down is also helpful for remembering instructions.
  5. Teach students to be ‘active readers’
    To enhance Short-Term Memory registration and/or Working Memory when reading, pupils should underline, highlight, or jot key words down in the margin when reading chapters. They can then go back and read what is underlined, highlighted, or written in the margins. To consolidate this information in Long-Term Memory, they can make outlines or again use graphic organisers. Research has shown that graphic organisers increase academic achievement for all students.

Working memory is a key component of our Lexplore Intensive Reading Development and Intervention Programme. Our Teachers Handbook provides many more tips, ideas and resources to help teachers support pupils in developing the strong skills they need to learn and achieve both within the classroom and beyond.

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