How to use Working Memory

Quite often parents will ask about how to help their son or daughter to learn; to remember and use concepts or skills they learn in class in other contexts, whether that be in an exam, an assignment or in real life scenarios.

Here are some thoughts from our Head of Learning Support, Mrs Anita Williamson:

Working Memory

Working memory refers to the ability to hold information for a short period of time while using that information for a purpose.  We are using our working memory all the time – even when not consciously thinking of things, we are linking information to knowledge gained from past experiences to negotiate and ‘predict’ the immediate outcome in a situation.

Working memory forms part of a person’s cognitive ability.  It is not memory on its own, rather it is like a workbench upon which information is placed to be used. Working memory is crucial in almost all learning situations. Many classroom activities involve the use of working memory such as following multiple-step instructions, copying information from the board and participating in discussions. Consequently, difficulties with working memory can greatly affect a child’s academic performance. 

Here are a few hints about how to make the most of our working memory:

Four key factors:

  1. There is a limit – working memory is biological and cannot increase.  It usually reaches capacity by about 7 years of age (although may continue to develop until mid-teens for some children).
  2. Your limit or capacity doesn’t matter greatly – because ‘chunking’ and ‘linking’ of information allows you to overcome the limit to a certain extent (providing you have a concept for the new information).
  3. When your working memory fails, it fails completely – when there is a threat or high level of stress – working memory will fail and cannot be relied upon.
  4. Working memory is constructive – nothing stays the same as it enters – as soon as you ‘play’ with that information and ‘chunk’ or ‘link’ it to prior knowledge or experiences, it changes.

The more information there is to juggle, the harder it is to hold on to the information. It is vital to tie the new information or the ‘now’ to something you’ve already experienced – if not tied to something the information won’t be stored.  The importance of background knowledge is therefore vital for working memory. Working memory is like the news scrawl across the bottom of the TV news, moving forward with no looking back - you have a limited time available to connect or ‘chunk’ the information with current knowledge to make it meaningful.

Chunking assists us to more easily retain information until it moves to our long-term memory.

Repetition turns short-term memory into long-term memory.  Using strategies such as taking notes and using visual cues can help to reduce the load on our working memory and allow successful task completion.

Working Memory and Literacy

Working memory is an essential component in the development of literacy skills.  The brain forms whole new connected circuits. When we read we are forming an entire circuit for the deeper process of reading. In building the reading circuitry we need repetition to ensure the representation of letters/ letter patterns/morphemes/words is transferred to the long-term memory and therefore becomes automatic. 

If a problem with a child's working memory is suspected, then working memory ability can be determined through a cognitive assessment with a psychologist. If a difficulty with working memory is diagnosed, specific strategies can be applied to support this area of weakness in order to provide the best opportunity for success and academic growth.

If you would like to know more about how to assist your son or daughter to maximize their use of working memory, please contact: awilliamson@saac.qld.edu.au or sbambling@saac.qld.edu.au

Mrs Anita Williamson

HEAD OF LEARNING SUPPORT