Working Memory: Definition, Importance, Research, Overcoming Deficits

Memory is how knowledge is encoded, stored, and later retrieved. Although the word memory may conjure up an image of a singular, “all-or-none” process, it is clear that there are actually many kinds of memory, each of which may be somewhat independent of the others.

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

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 claim that some kind of manipulation of remembered information is needed in order 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.

Poor working memory 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 identified 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 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 to processing and remembering instructions and task goals, they can more readily be left to work independently.

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.

Sport success linked to working memory

A study from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden showed a strong link between executive functions, such as working memory, and achievement in sport. The study showed that the working memory and other cognitive functions in children and young people can be associated with how successful they are on the soccer pitch.

Executive functions are special control functions in the brain that allow us to adapt to an environment in a perpetual state of change. They include creative thinking in order to quickly switch strategy, find new, effective solutions and repress erroneous impulses. The functions are dependent on the brain’s frontal lobes, which continue to develop until the age of 25.

Strong results for several executive functions were found to be associated with success on the pitch, even after controlling for other factors that could conceivably affect performance. The clearest link was seen for simpler forms of executive function, such as working memory, which develops relatively early in life.

Improving working memory boosts fluid intelligence

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

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.

Edublox Online Tutor (EOT) houses a number of multisensory cognitive training programs that enable learners 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 for a variety of learning difficulties including dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and ADD/ADHD.

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Alloway, TP. “ADHD & working memory.”

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

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

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

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

Vestberg T et al. “Executive functions predict the success of top-soccer players.” Plos One. April 12, 2014.