Why Working Memory Matters for Students

When someone tells us they have a poor memory, they may be referring to any of a range of specific problems. For example, they may have difficulties in recalling past events, remembering to do things, or perhaps retrieving facts or names.

In everyday life we tend to talk about memory as if it is a single faculty. However, there are many grounds for thinking that memory is multi-faceted, made up of a number of separate but inter-linked systems.

Probably the oldest theoretical distinction of this kind is between a system for holding information over long periods of time and a system that deals with information over much shorter intervals, of the order of seconds or at most a few minutes.

Long-term memory is the relatively permanent memory storage system that holds information indefinitely. In it we store last year’s football scores, the image of an elephant, and how to ride a bicycle. We also appear to be storing information that we can’t consciously retrieve, but which still affects our behaviour. Short-term memory, on the other hand, refers to our ability to retain temporary information over such intervals, as in looking up a telephone number and then dialling it. Working memory is a related concept, but goes beyond the mere retention of information. More specifically, working memory keeps track of transient information and coordinates mental operations in a variety of cognitive tasks.

The classic illustration of working memory in action is complex mental arithmetic, where we typically break the task down into a series of  operations. For example, 26 + 37 might be broken down into the stages 20 + 30 = 50 and 6 + 7 = 13 and 50 + 13 = 63 in order to get the answer. Other everyday examples of situations placing demands on working memory are talking to a group of unfamiliar people while trying to remember their names or taking notes while following a presentation.

Working memory matters for academic achievement  

According to researchers from Durham University, who surveyed over three thousand children, children who underachieve at school may just have poor working memory rather than low intelligence. They found that ten percent of schoolchildren across all age ranges suffer from poor working memory seriously affecting their learning. The researchers also found that poor working memory is rarely identified by teachers, who often describe children with this problem as inattentive or as having lower levels of intelligence. Without appropriate intervention, poor working memory in children can affect long-term academic success into adulthood and prevent children from achieving their potential.

Lead researcher Dr. Tracy Alloway who, with colleagues, has published widely on the subject, explains: “Working memory is a bit like a mental jotting pad and how good this is in someone will either ease their path to learning or seriously prevent them from learning.”

Working memory matters for reading 

An important and consistent finding is that working memory problems interfere with reading and reading comprehension. Reading is a complex skill that requires the simultaneous activation of many different brain processes. When reading a word, the reader must recognize the visual configuration of letters as well as the letter order, and he must engage in segmentation (breaking the word into individual sounds). Then, while being held in working memory, the phonemes (letter sounds) must be synthesized and blended to form recognizable words.

To comprehend sentences, several more skills are necessary. The reader must not only decode the words, but also comprehend the syntax, retain the sequence of words, use contextual cues, and integrate this with existing knowledge. This must be done simultaneously in order for sentences to be understood. At the same time, sentences must be held in working memory and integrated with one another. Each sentence is read, understood, associated and integrated with the previous one and so forth. Eventually the entire paragraph is read and the reader continues to the next one. By the end of the chapter both the details and main idea need to be retained in working memory, otherwise the reader may have retained isolated facts but may not know the sequence of events nor understand the main idea.

Working memory matters for math 

Mathematics has been long known to be a complicated subject, requiring an advanced set of skills. Considerable evidence has appeared in the past two decades concerning the vital role that working memory plays in mathematical cognition. One of the main findings is the strong contribution of working memory to problem solving, whether it is a single- or multi-digit arithmetic in consideration. A study by Cragg et al. showed that both children and adults employ working memory when solving arithmetic problems, no matter what strategy they choose. Their study highlighted the importance of considering working memory in understanding the difficulties that some children and adults have with mathematics.

Working memory can be trained

Working memory training, as provided by Edublox Online Tutor, can be especially helpful to kids with reduced working memory capacity. It is important to note that working memory does not replace curriculum. Acquiring math skills requires the learning of concepts and procedures. Working memory training will not replace acquiring either, but will facilitate faster and easier acquisition by providing more efficient cognitive resources to do so.
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Key Takeaways

  • Working memory is like a mental jotting pad and how good this is in someone will either ease their path to learning or seriously prevent them from learning.
  • An important and consistent finding is that working memory problems interfere with reading and reading comprehension.
  • Working memory plays a vital role in mathematical cognition.
  • Working memory training facilitates faster and easier acquisition by providing more efficient cognitive resources to do so.
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March 21, 2020

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