Working Memory: The Hidden Ingredient in Learning

By David J. Kucher, M.A. and Christopher M. Bogart, Ph.D.


Research suggests that working memory is a critical ingredient in the learning process • Despite their intellect, students that have problems with working memory often struggle with executive functions, the skills necessary for organizing and completing assignments • Working memory can be improved through explicit training

2.4.5-working-memoryEmma and Thomas: both 13 years old; both with superior IQs of 122 (93rd percentile); both in 8th grade. Emma follows directions for homework, study guides, and writing assignments, and earns consistently high grades. Thomas “tries” to follow directions, yet often forgets to do homework, submits incomplete homework, does not recall what to study for a test, or leaves out sections of an assigned paper. Teachers report that Thomas “grasps concepts quickly, but does not follow through on the steps required to demonstrate mastery of these concepts.” Emma reports that she “feels confident about her academic achievement.” Thomas says, “I feel dumb because I work as hard as everyone else, and I get the material, but I can’t pass the tests.”

What leads to this performance difference in these two bright children? While Emma has a pretty even profile of skills, Thomas tests with clear challenges in using working memory, the factor that many educators are starting to call the “hidden ingredient” in learning.

What Is Working Memory?

Working memory offers a system for temporary storage and manipulation of information, giving a student the ability to keep information in his mind for a short period of time (seconds) and be able to use the information in thinking. Working memory functions much like RAM in your computer: holding information on a clipboard, working with the information, then erasing or storing the information.

Recent theories of working memory present this critical set of processing pathways in the brain as one of the cornerstones of executive functions. With a developed working memory, a student like Emma capably absorbs and stores information, takes notes, solves problems, finishes homework and tests, and participates in class. With a challenged working memory like Thomas’s, a student misses some of the key auditory and visual details presented in class, runs out of steam when reading, slowly and inaccurately takes notes, and struggles to follow multi-step directions. Despite high intelligence, Thomas appears to “not get it” in class.

Students have different levels of working memory skill, and this difference impacts the way they learn. With explicit teaching and demystification, a student can gain great awareness of how this function plays into different academic and life tasks, and can learn how to harness it more effectively.

How Can Working Memory Be Improved?

The hotly debated topic in education and neuropsychology is whether working memory can be strengthened through different activities and cognitive training. While the research is not conclusive, many compelling studies suggest that intense and specific training can improve working memory.

The training of working memory extends from focused education and exercises taught by an executive functions coach to computer training programs that systematically challenge the working memory system. Developers of computer programs such as BrainTrain, Lumosity, and CogMed suggest that these programs offer fun, interactive training games that allow children and adults to track their working memory progress over a defined period of time, usually about six weeks. Working memory is further developed through activities taught by a trained executive functions coach to create an intentional plan of action to enhance the child’s growth in academic, athletic, and social areas.

Science and experience suggest that the greatest success comes from being intentional in our discussions and education about working memory as a cornerstone of executive functions. At home and in schools, parents and teachers can help guide students to an understanding of working memory and, where applicable, support a child’s working memory by helping “offload” missed details. For example, a teacher may offer notes to a student, or a parent may pack a sports bag for their child.

Working memory challenges can affect many life activities; however, self-awareness, guidance, and appropriate support can lead to independence. The more we can make this “hidden ingredient” an explicit part of our work with children, the better the child can face many school and life activities.

David J. Kucher is the Director of Learning Services, and Christopher M. Bogart is the Executive Director at the Southfied Center for Development in Darien, CT.

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