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Everything you need to know about working memory

Everything you need to know about working memory

4 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Memory and learning are very closely related. Enhancing one enhances the other. Our memory allows us to store and process knowledge and skills that we learn to be used in the future. However, many of us don’t fully understand how it works. Its importance is not lost on us, however, learning more of the specifics and understanding working memory can help us learn or teach more effectively.

So, what is working memory and why is it important?

What is working memory ?

Working memory is the part of our brain that holds and manipulates information short-term. It can store verbal, visual, and spatial information in the mind, whilst allowing us to engage in other cognitive activities. It impacts all areas of thinking and learning.

Examples of using our working memory in our daily life include remembering someone’s email address, asking for directions and remembering them until we reach our destination, learning the name of someone new and keeping it in mind throughout the conversation. These are simple things that we may give no second thought to but that demonstrate how important working memory is in our everyday life.

On average, humans can hold roughly 7 things in their working memory at any one time. This means we sometimes need simple strategies to maximise the limited capacity of our working memory. The most common one is to write things down, which saves us from having to store and juggle lots of information in our working memory; we can simply store it on a piece of paper and refer to it when we need it.

Sometimes, however, writing things down isn’t possible. In these situations, techniques such as chunking, acronyms and silly sentences can help.

  • Chunking refers to grouping small bits of information together. For example, remembering a number sequence like ‘2, 8, 0, 3, 1, 9, 8, 5’ is made easier by chunking it into three groups like this: “28, 03, 1985”.
  • Acronyms are where each letter in a word acts as a cue to remember something else. E.g., using SOHCAHTOA as a way to remember the sine, cosine and tangent of angles in a triangle.
  • Silly sentences are similar, with the first letter of each word is used as a reminder for another. A popular example is: ‘Richard OYork Gave Battle IVain’, which serves to remember the colours of the rainbow; the R in Richard = Red, O in Of = Orange, and so on.
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Why is working memory important?

Working memory is crucial for paying attention, and subsequently important for students when they are in the classroom. It allows them to process and retain the information they are being taught, whilst simultaneously solving problems, taking notes, and following their teacher’s instructions.

The capacity of working memory differs from person to person. Information can easily be lost because of a distraction or cognitive overload. A poor working memory can have many negative effects, because it makes holding the necessary information in our minds more difficult, stopping us from completing the task at hand. Those with a lesser capacity can lose focus and find it difficult to concentrate. This is especially harmful for students: paying attention in the classroom is vital to their academic progress.

Improving memory

Research suggests that underachieving students may just have a poor working memory rather than low intelligence. It was found that 10% of students suffered from poor working memory that seriously affected their learning.

The good news is that working memory can be improved. Regardless of academic performance level, it is an important skill for all students to strengthen. Encouraging students to actively work to improve their working memory will have evident positive effects on their academic progress. Here are 4 strategies we recommend implementing into your teaching to help your students make the most of their working memory:

  1. Recall – Read a list of words to your students and ask them to recall as many as they can, without any notes. This can help them further understand and consolidate the information in their brains.
  2. Visualise – A picture is worth a thousand words, and so visualising what you’re trying to remember can make the memory transfer easier.
  3. Simplify – Help your students break big chunks of information into smaller sections. This will help them narrow their focus and fully understand something before moving on.
  4. Be mindful – Evidence shows that practicing daily mindfulness can increase recall by showing students how to tune out distractions. 

Final thoughts

Working memory is important as it allows us to concentrate and retain information when we need to remember it later. Poor working memory means that there is a limited capacity on what we can keep in our stores, which can have negative effects on academic performance. Fortunately, there are many ways to enhance this and make the most of this crucial mental faculty.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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