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Working Memory: Definition, How to Improve

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 several separate but inter-linked systems.

Probably the oldest theoretical distinction of this kind is between a system for holding information over long periods 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 behavior. 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 dialing it. Working memory is a related concept but goes beyond the mere retention of information.

What is working memory?

Working memory is defined as the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally; it 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. To solve an arithmetic problem like (3 X 3) + (4 X 2) in your head, you need to keep the intermediate results in mind (i.e., 3 X 3 = 9) to solve the entire problem. 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.

The distinction between short-term memory and working memory is an ongoing debate as the terms are often used interchangeably. The term ‘working memory’ was coined in 1960 by Miller, Galanter, and Pribram in their classic book Plans and the Structure of Behaviour, used in 1968 by Atkinson and Shiffrin in an influential paper “Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes,” and adopted as the title for a multicomponent model by Baddeley and Hitch in 1974. Some scholars insist that some kind of manipulation of remembered information is needed to qualify the task as one of working memory. Repeating digits in the same order they were presented would thus be a short-term memory task, while repeating them backward would be a working memory task. Another viewpoint is that of Nelson Cowan, who says short-term memory refers to the passive storage of information when rehearsal is prevented with storage capacity around four items. When rehearsal is allowed and controlled attention is involved, it is a working memory task and the capacity is closer to seven items.

Why is working memory important?

– Poor working memory is a barrier to academic success

Children who underachieve at school may just have poor working memory rather than low intelligence, according to researchers who have produced the world’s first tool to assess memory capacity in the classroom. Researchers from Durham University’s School of Education, who surveyed over three thousand children, 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.”

Poor working memory affects attention

A student’s ability to pay attention during class and schoolwork requires them to process and retain information via working memory.

One of the most consistent findings in research studies is that students with ADHD have a poor working memory, particularly when they have to remember visual information, such as graphs or images. Students with ADHD are four times more likely to have working memory problems compared to peers without attention problems, says Dr. Tracy Alloway.

On the positive side students with strong working memory are likely to do well-maintaining focus and attention in a variety of academic settings. Because they’re capable of processing and remembering instructions and task goals, they can more readily be left to work independently.

– Poor working memory affects reading comprehension

An important and consistent finding is that working memory problems interfere with 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. (2017) 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.

Improving working memory

Working memory is increasingly recognized as a crucial cognitive skill and by improving our working memory we may be able to realize gains in key areas, from school to work to retirement.

According to University of Michigan research, improving working memory can boost scores in general problem-solving ability and improve fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is defined as the ability to solve new problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is defined as the ability to use learned knowledge and experience.

After initially giving subjects a standard test for fluid intelligence, the researchers gave subjects a series of training exercises designed to improve their working memory. The training was given to four groups, who repeated the exercises for eight, 12, 17, or 19 days. After the training, the researchers retested the subjects’ fluid intelligence.

Although the performance of untrained controls improved slightly, the trained subjects showed a significant performance improvement, which increased with time spent training. “The more training, the more improvement in fluid intelligence,” researcher Susanne Jaeggi said.

How Edublox can help

Edublox Online Tutor (EOT) houses several multisensory cognitive training programs that enable students to overcome learning obstacles and reach their full potential. EOT is founded on pedagogical research and 30+ years of experience demonstrating that weak underlying cognitive skills account for the majority of learning difficulties. Underlying cognitive skills include working memory. Specific cognitive exercises can strengthen these weaknesses leading to increased performance in reading, spelling, writing, math, and learning.

EOT has been optimized for children aged between 7 and 13, is suitable for the gifted and less gifted, and can be used at home and in school. The program is effective in alleviating a variety of symptoms associated with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia.

Edublox also offers live online tutoring to students with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and other learning difficulties. Our students are in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.


Alloway, TP el al. “Verbal and visuospatial short-term and working memory in children: are they separable? Child Development. 2006, vol 77(6).

Baddeley, A. “Working memory.” Current Biology. February 23, 2010, vol. 20(4).

Cowan, N. “The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2001, 24.

Cragg, L et al. “When is working memory important for arithmetic? The impact of strategy and age.” Plos One vol. 12,12 e0188693. Dec 11, 2017.

Durham University. “Children’s under-achievement could be down to poor working memory.” Durham University, February 29, 2008.

University of Michigan. “Brain-training to improve memory boosts fluid intelligence.” Michigan News. April 30, 2008.