Developing working memory: what teachers need to know

Pupils with working memory difficulties find problems harder and acquire concepts less easily. Here’s how to help pupils train their memories

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Owen Carter is co-founder and managing director of ImpactEd, a not-for-profit organisation which exists to help schools and education providers understand and improve the impact of the programmes they run. A...

Memory is integral to learning. When we say pupils have learned something, all we are effectively saying is that they have committed it to memory, ready to recall at a later date in order to solve a problem.

This has been brought into sharp focus by the move towards terminal, extended examination and a National Curriculum that prioritises depth of understanding as much as breadth.

Unfortunately, memorisation for a lot of pupils, staff and parents, brings into mind rote learning and endless copying from the board. But understanding both working and long-term memory is crucial to helping pupils succeed. Here I’ll explain why, and what teachers can practically do to support pupils’ memory skills.

Understanding the basic model of memory

The most simple model of the mind offered by cognitive psychologists effectively divides up the mind into two parts: working memory and long-term memory. Working memory is where conscious thought takes place, where pupils actively think about things; long-term memory is where knowledge (facts, skills and procedures) is stored.

The key principle for teachers is that where possible pupils will solve problems by recourse to long-term memory, rather than thinking about it actively. We don’t think about tying our shoelaces because we’ve done it a hundred times before – even though physically the action is quite difficult. In the same way if pupils spot something that is similar to what they’ve encountered before, they will attempt to leap to the answer based on previous experience.

This is because working memory is very limited and small in capacity. Long-term memory, by contrast, is much larger, and capable of storing information on a semi-permanent basis. If we can solve something through recall we will.

Problems with working memory

Pupils’ working memory is crucial because it’s where they balance the information recalled from long-term memory with the specific demands of the problem they need to answer.

It also matters because in order to learn pupils have to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory.

But there are a number of reasons why working memory can be a stumbling block in a lot of pupils. For a start, working memory varies substantially between pupils. In a class of 30 children aged 7-8 years old, for instance, normally at least three would have the working memory capacity of the average 4-year-old, and at least three others that of the average 11-year-old (see this guide to working memory).

Working memory can also be impaired in a number of ways.

  • Distraction. We’ve all experienced it: you’re focusing hard on a problem and then someone starts talking to you. The train of thought is lost. This is working memory being interrupted.
  • Confusion. Our minds aren’t very good at filtering out irrelevant data. Answering how much it would cost to buy five handbags at six pounds each takes us slightly longer than 5 x 6, although they’re the same question. The principle holds for more complex problems.
  • Overload. A simple case of too much confusion can impair working memory. If I ask you to find 7 + 62 + 9 + 15 + 48 + 5 + 12, although none of the sums are individually difficult, you’ll likely have forgotten the first number by the time I get to the end of the sentence. We can only hold so much in our working memory at once.
  • Difficulty. Challenge is a crucial factor. Complex tasks that require pupils to do several things at once often stretch the limits of working memory. I can’t expect someone to write an extended argument if their attention is too consumed by even getting the sentences right.

So what can we do to effectively develop pupils’ working memory?

Identifying working memory difficulties

Some common signs of working memory difficulties are:

  • difficulty recalling facts or skills
  • repeated issues with following instructions
  • losing track of one’s place in a piece of work
  • problems with staying on task.

The Canlearn Society offers a fuller list.

Practical strategies

Building working memory skills is difficult – abstract teaching of skills often doesn’t carry over into specific demands. But there are some ways to change your teaching to accommodate those with working memory difficulties – and enable them to improve them over time.

1. Make the problems clear

Remember we noted that the brain isn’t good at filtering useful from useless information? Naturally when teaching you want pupils to get to the essence of the problem. So you should design your tasks so that mental strain takes place where you want it to.

Say you’re teaching the Blitz. You get pupils to make gas masks out of paper, play them contemporary footage, and encourage them to bring in foods that would have been rationed during wartime. All of this sounds very fun and engaging. But it does run the risk of pupils spending more time thinking about their outfit and foodstuffs than the knowledge you want them to acquire. Particularly for pupils with working memory difficulties clear task design, which gets them applying mental effort where you want them to and nowhere else, is beneficial.

2. Prioritise knowledge retention

Imagine you want a pupil to master the solution to a given problem. But the working memory demands seem to be too much for them: they lose focus halfway through, or can’t explain how they arrived at their conclusion.

One way to relieve working memory demands is, paradoxically, by enabling long-term memory to do its work. The procedures that can be done automatically should be. This is why, as John Tomsett has argued, learning your time tables is a genuinely useful thing: it helps pupils do more complicated equations with greater ease. One classic study examining reading comprehension on a passage about baseball found that the difference between high and low ability readers was actually significantly less than the difference between those who knew lots about baseball and those who didn’t. So knowledge really matters, even on tasks where it might not be apparent.

Resources to support working memory

Alloway and Gathercole suggest a useful list of tools to support memory, including:

  • number lines
  • Unifix blocks
  • cards
  • dictaphones
  • wall charts.

They recommend practising the use of these tools with children initially to establish correct use in low-stress environments.

The important thing for teachers to know is that you should prioritise getting fundamental procedures right no matter what subject, and provide multiple opportunities for practice, spaced over time, for methods to become ingrained in long-term memory. You should also look for opportunities to build pupils’ knowledge base wherever possible. This frees up space for the conscious thinking required in working memory.

3. Break it down

As part of clarifying the problem, teachers can break tasks into smaller pieces. If you ask pupils to analyse a paragraph of text, you're actually making quite a complicated demand. Instead you could use a frame such as Form, Structure and Language to help pupils make their response one step at a time (provided they adequately understand these terms)!

You could also:

  • provide written instructions
  • use the whiteboard to display prompts or key words
  • model correct answers, and highlight the difference between them and answers that aren’t quite there, to guide practice
  • be language aware, using short, active sentences rather than complex longer ones
  • cultivate classroom routines which make simple processes automatic e.g. handing papers to the front of the classroom the same way every time. Michaela School are excellent at developing these habits.

4. Make the implicit explicit

If you notice a pupil repeating a certain mistake, ask them to say out loud the steps they take to complete a task. This can give you useful information about where their likely sticking points are. Asking the question ‘Do you understand this?’ is rarely useful; your questioning should instead assess specific aspects of their understanding.

Graphic organisers and other tools to encourage reflection are also crucial aids here. Try using the metacognitive reflection sheet, the pupil learning plan or popular acronyms such as the PEE technique (Point, Evidence, Explanation) to reinforce both self-regulation and useful routines for pupils to adopt.

Check out a fuller explanation of developing meta-awareness for improving working memory.

5. Pre-teach where possible

Avoid intervention by giving pupils with working memory difficulties the chance to get their heads round a topic beforehand. By allowing these pupils to run over some key concepts and skills in advance of the class you greatly increase the chance they can keep up during the lesson.

Using the start of the lesson to review prior content gives another opportunity to reinforce central concepts, and link to that knowledge to what will be taught in this lesson.

Many of these recommendations build on the mastery approach to teaching – here’s how to assess whether it’s right for your school.

Last Updated: 
13 May 2016