top of page

Working Memory

Updated: Nov 9, 2021


The Early Career Framework states that teachers must learn that... Working memory is where information that is being actively processed is held, but its capacity is limited and can be overloaded.


Working memory is the small amount of information that can be held in mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks, in contrast with long-term memory, the vast amount of information saved in one’s life.


Working memory is similar to short-term memory, but in working memory the information is manipulated to produce new information. The theory of working memory was put forward in 1974 by psychologists, Alan Badderley and Graham Hitch, who proposed that working memory was made up of three components:

  • The Central Executive (which drives the whole system).

  • The Visuospatial Sketchpad (which stores and processes visual or spatial information).

  • The Phonological Loop (which stores and processes written and spoken information).

In 2000, Badderley added a further component – the Episodic Buffer – to this model. This is where information, both visual and phonological, is combined and integrated, along with relevant information from the long-term memory.


You may come across research where the terms ‘short-term memory’ and ‘working memory’ are used interchangeably. While research has found overlap between them, as a teacher it is useful to make the distinction between the storage of the short-term memory and the cognitive process of working memory, which both retains and processes information.



The Learning Scientists write that working memory refers to your ability to manipulate and remember information over a short period of time (about two minutes). It’s very similar to short term memory, but when we use the term working memory we are emphasizing the manipulation of information. For example, if someone gave you a telephone number to write down, you might have to silently repeat the numbers to yourself while you search for a pad of paper. This task could be made more difficult if you try to continue with the conversation as you are searching for the pad of paper. Your ability to follow along with the conversation, while looking for a pad of paper, and while repeating those numbers to yourself, is your working memory.


There are some differences between people’s working memory ability. For some people the task described above may seem nearly impossible - you fail to find the pad of paper, follow the conversation, or remember the numbers almost every time. For others, it’s a bit easier - while it may be challenging, you can usually follow the conversation, find the paper, and remember the number without skipping a beat. Differences in working memory have been associated with reading comprehension, logic and reasoning, and IQ scores. Given the strong association with academics, a lot of research has been done on explaining differences in working memory and possible ways to improve it, particularly in school-age children.


The Education Hub state that "working memory is involved in a variety of learning and daily living tasks, such as reading, problem solving, and navigation". As such, it is sometimes referred to as the "brain's workhorse." In fact, Tracy and Ross Alloway, in their book The Working Memory: Train Your Brain to Function Stronger, Smarter, Faster, contend that working memory is a better predictor than IQ of how well students will perform academically: "IQ is what you know. Working memory is what you can do with what you know" (p. 16).


The working memory is where all our mental processing and real-time thinking takes place. It is where we combine incoming information from the environment with retrieved information from our long-term memory, and then use both to make a decision or complete an action. The most prominent feature of the working memory system is its limited capacity. We are able to handle only a small number of new items at any given moment. While it was originally thought that the normal range of items held in working memory is 5 to 9 items, research has shown that this capacity is actually lower and is closer to just 4 items.




The most important points to remember about working memory are:

  • It is where thinking takes place, where incoming new information is connected with prior knowledge, and where both are manipulated

  • It has a limited capacity

  • Overload leads to information loss – either incoming information will not be processed, or an item ‘in process’ will be dropped for a new one

  • Processing in working memory is essential for long-term storage – it is the information’s ‘entry ticket’ to the long-term memory storage: as Professor Daniel Willingham puts it, memory is the ‘residue of thought’

It is important to consider how to present new information, especially when combining visuals with text or speech. Cognitive load theory offers some guidelines:

  • Present all the information needed for a task in one place – going back and forth between a few sources, like a figure and a written explanation, adds unnecessary cognitive load

  • Don’t use two forms of presentation to say the same thing – for example, if you include written text, don’t read it aloud

  • Combining visuals with verbal information is helpful and may enhance processing, but it is important to remember that the visuals should be pictures or drawings, not text, and they should be directly related to the learned concept: their purpose is not just to draw attention but to support the processing. Using visuals that are not directly related will achieve the opposite.


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.


Edutopia suggest the following Workouts for Working Memory:

  • Repeat after me - Asking students to repeat what you have said or to paraphrase it in their own words is a simple way to both assess and increase their working memory. The acts of listening and speaking what they have heard focus their attention on the lesson content and activate several components of the working memory model.

  • Make a game of it - Children and youth love to play games, and card games like Concentration, Crazy Eights, and Uno can help to build working memory. Better yet, design learning activities based on memory games to help reinforce key content.

  • Emphasize relevance - Lead a class discussion on the importance of identifying and focusing on relevant data in learning. Life is full of irrelevant information and distractions. When researching a topic online, for example, it's easy to get sidetracked by entries that are interesting but not relevant to the task at hand. A key aspect of improving working memory is developing your ability to attend to what's important now.

  • Hone short-term recall through practice - Provide plenty of learning activities that involve working with bits of information. Word problems in math require students to identify, remember, and process data.

  • Visualize it - Learning to picture the components of a math reading problem (as just one example) in their minds is another strategy that engages and enhances multiple components of working memory.

  • Teach it to learn it - The act of teaching also engages working memory. Through activities that involve peer teaching or learning in pairs and small groups, students can enhance learning by applying their working memory to the task of explaining and teaching new content to others.


Further Reading:

In her Presidents’ Award Lecture at the Annual Conference, Susan E. Gathercole looked at identifying and supporting children with poor working memory. Read a summary here


Nelson Cowan writes about how Working Memory Underpins Cognitive Development, Learning, and Education in his article for Educational Psychology Review. Cowan N. Working Memory Underpins Cognitive Development, Learning, and Education. Educ Psychol Rev. 2014;26(2):197-223. doi:10.1007/s10648-013-9246-y


#Teacherhead discusses working memory in his article "A model for the learning process. And why it helps to have one" - click on the image below to read.



References

[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017) Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659–701. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654316689306 .

Agarwal, P. K., Finley, J. R., Rose, N. S., & Roediger, H. L. (2017) Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory, 25(6), 764–771. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2016.1220579 .

Allen, B. and Sims, S. (2018) The Teacher Gap. Abingdon: Routledge. Baddeley, A. (2003) Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature reviews neuroscience, 4(10), 829-839.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009) Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp.5-31. Chi, M. T. (2009) Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. In International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 89-110). Routledge.

Clark, R., Nguyen, F. & Sweller, J. (2006) Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. John Wiley & Sons. Cowan, N. (2008) What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338.

*Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning [Online] Acc