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How Working Memory Affects Learning

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Working memory is a crucial component of the learning process, yet it is often overlooked or misunderstood. In this article, we will explore what working memory is, how it affects learning, and how it can be supported in the classroom.

 

What is Working Memory?

Working memory is the part of our memory system that is responsible for temporarily holding and manipulating information while we complete a task. It is often referred to as the “workbench” of our memory system, as it is where we actively process and use information.

Working memory is different from long-term memory, which is responsible for storing information for later use. Working memory is also different from short-term memory, which is responsible for holding information for a short period of time, usually around 20-30 seconds.

The Components of Working Memory

Working memory is made up of three components: the phonological loop, the visuospatial sketchpad, and the central executive.

The phonological loop is responsible for processing and storing verbal information, such as words and numbers. It is divided into two parts: the phonological store, which holds the information, and the articulatory control process, which processes and manipulates the information.

The visuospatial sketchpad is responsible for processing and storing visual and spatial information, such as images and locations. It is divided into two parts: the visual cache, which holds visual information, and the inner scribe, which processes and manipulates the information.

The central executive is responsible for coordinating and integrating information from the phonological loop and the visuospatial sketchpad. It also plays a role in attention and decision-making.

 

How Working Memory Affects Learning

Working memory plays a crucial role in learning, as it is responsible for holding and manipulating information while we complete a task. It is especially important in tasks that require us to process and use multiple pieces of information at once, such as reading, problem-solving, and following instructions.

Reading

Reading requires us to use our working memory to process and understand the words on the page. We must hold the words in our phonological loop while we decode them and then use our central executive to integrate the information with our prior knowledge. This process is repeated for each word, making reading a complex task that relies heavily on working memory.

Problem-Solving

Problem-solving also relies heavily on working memory. When faced with a problem, we must hold all the relevant information in our working memory while we analyze and manipulate it to find a solution. This requires us to use our central executive to coordinate and integrate information from our phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad.

Following Instructions

Following instructions is another task that relies on working memory. We must hold the instructions in our working memory while we complete each step, using our central executive to coordinate and integrate information from our phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad. This can be particularly challenging for individuals with poor working memory, as they may need help holding all the steps in their mind simultaneously.

 

Supporting Working Memory in the Classroom

Working memory difficulties can have a significant impact on a student’s academic performance. However, there are strategies that teachers can use to support students with poor working memory in the classroom.

Chunking Information

Chunking information is a strategy that involves breaking down information into smaller, more manageable chunks. This can help students with poor working memory by reducing the amount of information they need to hold in their working memory at once. For example, instead of giving a student a list of 10 instructions, a teacher could break it down into two or three steps at a time.

Visual Aids

Visual aids, such as diagrams, pictures, and mind maps, can also be helpful for students with poor working memory. These aids can help students to visualize and organize information, reducing the load on their working memory. For example, a teacher could use a mind map to break down a complex concept into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Memory Aids

Memory aids, such as mnemonics and acronyms, can also be helpful for students with poor working memory. These aids can help students to remember information by associating it with something more memorable. For example, a student could use the acronym “HOMES” to remember the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior).

 

Setting Working Memory IEP Goals

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are legal documents that outline the specific educational goals and accommodations for students with disabilities. For students with working memory difficulties, setting IEP goals can be an effective way to support their learning.

Examples of Working Memory IEP Goals

  • The student will be able to follow multi-step instructions with 80% accuracy.
  • The student will be able to recall and write down a list of 10 items with 80% accuracy.
  • The student will be able to read a paragraph and answer comprehension questions with 80% accuracy.

When setting IEP goals for working memory, it is important to consider the specific needs and abilities of the student. Goals should be challenging but achievable, and progress should be regularly monitored and adjusted as needed.

 

Technology for Supporting Working Memory

Technology can also be a valuable tool for supporting students with working memory difficulties. There are many apps and programs available that can help students to organize and remember information.

Mind Mapping Tools

Mind mapping tools, such as MindMeister and MindNode, can help students to visually organize information and make connections between ideas. These tools can be particularly helpful for students with poor working memory, as they can reduce the load on their working memory by providing a visual representation of the information.

Memory Games

There are also many memory games available that can help students to improve their working memory. These games often involve remembering and repeating sequences of information, which can help to strengthen the phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad.

Voice-to-Text Software

Voice-to-text software, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking and Google Voice Typing, can also be helpful for students with poor working memory. These tools allow students to dictate their thoughts and ideas, reducing the load on their working memory and allowing them to focus on the content rather than the mechanics of writing.

 

Conclusion

Working memory is a crucial component of the learning process, and difficulties with working memory can have a significant impact on a student’s academic performance. By understanding how working memory affects learning and implementing strategies and technology to support it, teachers can help students with poor working memory to reach their full potential.

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Bill Reichle Owner, Mental Health Therapist
Bill is the owner of Avanti Consulting LLC. Bill consults and works with families, children, and adults.