Working memory in the classroom and beyond

08/21/2012  |  BY GRACE ASHTON
Special Needs
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The role of working memory in attention and learning continues to gain more interest from psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, educators, and parents.

What is Working Memory?

Working memory is the ability to keep information in mind for a few seconds, manipulate it, and use the information in thinking. It is a critical cognitive function necessary for a wide-range of tasks in our daily lives, e.g., remembering plans or instructions, performing mental arithmetic, following a recipe, carrying on conversations, and recalling a telephone number. If information is lost while held in working memory, it cannot be stored in long-term memory and subsequently recalled.


The amount of information a person can hold in mind, process and manipulate at any given time, is his/her working memory capacity. Working memory capacity develops in childhood, reaches adult capacity around age 14 or 15, and begins to decrease around middle age. This capacity is limited and varies greatly between individuals of the same age. Research has shown that the rate of growth in working memory capacity for individuals with lower capacity in childhood does not catch up to those higher capacity; although working memory skills do improve, the discrepancy between those individuals with weak and strong working memory widens with age.

Working Memory in the Classroom

To learn, students must receive, store, retain, and retrieve information when needed; i.e., all students depend on their working memory everyday. Each student has a finite pool of mental resources to store, manipulate, and process information (e.g., reading, counting, presenting). As processing demands increase, available working memory storage decreases. Because working memory allows individuals to efficiently process what they see and hear, and react appropriately, weak working memory may negatively impact a student’s social interactions, as well as interactions in games and sports. Fortunately, as children age, most become more efficient at carrying out mental processes, freeing up more cognitive reserve to meet the working memory demands of progressively more challenging academic and social tasks.

Working memory is considered by some to be a “pure” measure of a child’s learning potential because it is independent of prior experience and socio-economic factors. The majority of children and adolescents with weak working memory struggle in the academic areas of reading, math, and science. When working memory is overloaded, crucial information necessary to guide the ongoing activity is lost. Without teacher support, a student with weak working memory is left to struggle, guess, and often quit many academic tasks before completion.

Students with weak working memory capacity are sometimes incorrectly characterized as having primary attention problems. A student may be described as not paying attention to directions, when in fact he/she may have simply forgotten what to do. Children with poor working memory are more likely to engage in “day-dreaming” or “mind-wandering” when performing cognitively demanding tasks, which overload their working memory capacity. Students with working memory impairments may present in the classroom as under-achieving in reading and math. They often have normal peer interactions but are reserved in classroom settings (for example, they may rarely volunteer information during a class discussion). Such students may actually have thought of an important comment or fact, but because of weak working memory capacity, lose important content before having the chance to speak in class, and are speechless when called upon by a teacher.

Recommendations for the Classroom

Excellent classroom recommendations to support students with weak working memory may be found in Gathercole and Alloway’s 2008 book “Working Memory and Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers.” They recommend that teachers learn to recognize working memory deficits in their students so they can carefully monitor the student’s performance in class to look for warning signs of working memory overload. Ask the student to describe what he/she is doing and is planning to do next. Patiently repeat instructions as often as needed. Break down instructions and tasks into smaller steps. Keep verbal instructions short and deliver with demonstration and visual support whenever possible. Allow students to see and do a task for themselves repeatedly rather than deliver a lecture. Encourage students to ask for information to be repeated and to learn to observe their own performance in an objective way. Provide explicit instruction and encouragement to use a variety of methods to support working memory. Provide notes for the student, record lessons or information for repeated listening or viewing, allow use of a calculator for math, encourage reading along with recorded books, and use other readily available assistive technology to support instruction for a student with weak working memory capacity.

Other excellent suggestions for classroom interventions may be found in Lynn Meltzer’s new book: “Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom” (2010). The strategies described in Meltzer’s book are based on four basic approaches: (1) attending to details, (2) repetition, rehearsal, and review, (3) attaching meaning, and (4) chunking information. Dr. Meltzer suggests that teachers sequence instruction in memory strategies as follows: ensure student’s understanding of each strategy, why it aids memory, and when they can apply it; then explicitly teach students how to use each strategy through direct instruction and teacher modeling of strategy use; and finally ask students to use a specific strategy for a task and reflect on how well it worked for them.

Beyond the Classroom: Promising Research on Improving Working Memory

Scientists now recognize that the human brain remains surprisingly adaptable and resilient throughout life. Through the use of sophisticated technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we are gaining a better understanding of the functional neuroanatomy involved in both reading and working memory.

For many years it was thought that working memory capacity could not be increased; consequently, intervention focused on accommodating weak working memory by means of changing the classroom, home, and work environment. Dr. Klingberg and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, began to research the potential for change in working memory through computerized training. Their 2005 randomized, double-blind, sham-controlled study of computerized working memory training in children ages seven to 12 with ADHD showed a significant treatment effect both post-intervention and at follow-up. Significant effects for secondary outcome tasks including verbal working memory, response inhibition, and complex reasoning were also seen. Parent ratings showed significant reduction in symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity, both post-intervention and at follow-up. The authors concluded that it is possible to increase working memory capacity in children with ADHD by training. Numerous studies conducted through the Karolinska institute and by independent researchers using the specific methods and technology developed by Klingberg, et al, have subsequently validated and expanded on the efficacy shown in the initial studies.

Growing excitement about the intervention possibilities for children and adults with limited working memory capacity is now seen across scientific and academic disciplines, as well as in the mainstream. These trends are sure to continue in the next decade and translate into more effective interventions for a broader range of individuals.

Grace Ashton, Ph.D. is a Licensed and Certified School Psychologist, and the Director of Psychological Services at AIM Academy. AIM’s dual mission is to provide extraordinary educational opportunities to students in grades 1-12 with language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia and associated attention issues, utilizing research-based intervention strategies in a private academic arts-based learning environment. The AIM Institute for Learning and Research is a center for educational research and professional development to disseminate best practices to educators by providing access to the latest research-based curriculum, technology, and training. In addition to her role of supervising the Psychology Department, Dr. Ashton oversees academic progress monitoring and assists in the development of each student’s academic program, goals and objectives. Consultation and collaboration with teachers, parents, speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists, is a cornerstone of Dr. Ashton’s daily activities in an effort to ensure overall student success. She also directs curriculum development and assessment for executive functions, and supervises psychoeducational evaluations and executive function skills intervention for the students at AIM and in the community.
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