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Working Memory: What It Is and How to Improve It

Working memory
When someone tells us they have a poor memory, they may refer to a range of specific problems. For example, they may need help recalling past events, remembering to do things, or perhaps retrieving facts or names.

In everyday life, we talk about memory as a single faculty. However, there are many grounds for thinking that memory is multi-faceted, consisting of several separate but interlinked 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 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 merely retaining information.

Table of contents:

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 various cognitive tasks.

Dr. Tracy Alloway from Durham University’s School of Education says: “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.”

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.

Working memory is defined as the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally.

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 multi-component model by Baddeley and Hitch in 1974.

Some scholars insist that some manipulation of remembered information is needed to qualify the task as one of working memory. For example, 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 (2001), who says short-term memory refers to the passive storage of information when rehearsal is prevented; storage capacity is around four items. However, when rehearsal is allowed, and controlled attention is involved, it is a working memory task, and the capacity is closer to seven items.

Why working memory matters

– It may be a barrier to academic success

According to researchers from Durham University’s School of Education, who produced the world’s first tool to assess memory capacity in the classroom, children who underachieve at school may have poor working memory rather than low intelligence. They surveyed over three thousand schoolchildren and found that ten percent 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. Yet, without appropriate intervention, poor working memory can affect long-term academic success into adulthood and prevent children from achieving their potential.

– It may affect attention

Students’ ability to pay attention during class and schoolwork requires processing and retaining 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. In fact, students with ADHD are four times more likely to have working memory problems compared to peers without attention problems.

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.

– It may affect reading comprehension

An important and consistent finding is that working memory problems interfere with reading comprehension. Reading is a complex skill that simultaneously activates many different brain processes. For example, when reading a word, the reader must recognize the visual configuration of letters and the letter order and engage in segmentation (breaking the word into individual sounds). Then, while 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 understand the syntax, retain the sequence of words, use contextual cues, and integrate this with existing knowledge. This must be done simultaneously for sentences to be understood. At the same time, sentences must be held in working memory and integrated. Each sentence is read, understood, associated, and integrated with the previous one.

Without appropriate intervention, poor working memory can affect long-term academic success into adulthood and prevent children from achieving their potential.

Eventually, the entire paragraph is read, and the reader continues to the next one. By the end of the chapter, the details and main idea need to be retained in working memory. Otherwise, the reader may have retained isolated facts but not know the sequence of events or understand the main idea.

– It matters for math 

Mathematics has long been known as 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 its role in problem-solving. Cragg et al. (2017) showed that 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 some children and adults’ difficulties with mathematics.

How to improve working memory

Working memory is increasingly recognized as a crucial cognitive skill. By improving this critical skill, one can realize gains in key areas, from school to work to retirement.

The good news is that working memory can be improved with practice, boosting scores in general problem-solving ability and fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve new problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is the ability to use learned knowledge and experience (Jaeggi et al., 2008).

When doing cognitive skills training, it is essential to note that such training should be multi-cognitive. In physical training, a balanced workout is vital as overtraining one part of the body can cause deformity, such as Popeye syndrome when overtraining the biceps. The brain is no different. For example, in Maguire et al.’s experiment with London taxi drivers, growth in the posterior hippocampi seems to have come at a cost, as they had reduced anterior hippocampal gray matter volume compared with bus drivers, with anterior volume decreasing with more navigation experience (Maguire et al., 2006).

One should also consider the role of mutualism. A mutualistic view suggests that cognitive abilities mutually facilitate growth. For example, better reasoning skills allow individuals to improve their vocabulary more quickly, and better vocabulary is associated with faster improvement in reasoning ability (Kievit et al., 2017).

Therefore, in addition to doing Edublox’s Development Tutor program four to five times a week for 15-20 minutes per session, the following exercise can be done for 4-5 minutes.

Working memory exercise

Do Edublox’s Development Tutor program for 15-20 minutes (3 exercises equal a session). After that, do the exercise below for 4-5 minutes. This exercise consists of two steps. The main purpose of Step 1 of this exercise is to improve long-term memory, while Step 2’s purpose is to improve working memory. Copyright: Edublox (Pty) Ltd. 

Step 1

Select a sequence from the examples below, or use any other sequence. The student has to learn the sequence by heart, which will require several sessions.

Only proceed to Step 2 once the learner can remember the sequence perfectly.

Days of the week (a must if your child doesn’t know the days of the week):
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

Months of the year (a must if your child doesn’t know the months of the year):
January, February, March, April, May, June, July, Augustus, September, October, November, December.

Eight planets that orbit the sun (in order from the sun):
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

Jacob’s children, listed according to birth order:
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Dinah, Joseph, Benjamin.

Alphabet (a must if your child doesn’t know the alphabet):
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.

NATO phonetic alphabet (International radiotelephony spelling alphabet):
Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Western Union phonetic alphabet:
Adams, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Easy, Frank, George, Henry, Ida, John, King, Lincoln, Mary, New York, Ocean, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Thomas, Union, Victor, William, X-ray, Young, Zero.

Phonetic alphabet sometimes used in Asia:
Australia, Bombay, China, Delhi, England, Fiji, Geneva, HongKong, India, Japan, KualaLumpur, London, Malaysia, Norway, Osaka, Penang, Queensland, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Uganda, Vietnam, Wellington, X-ray, Yokohama, Zanzibar.

Old Testament books in order:
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

U.S. states in alphabetical order:
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

Kings and Queens of England since 1066:
William I, William II, Henry I, Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, John, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, Richard III, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, Charles II, James II, William III & Mary II, Anne, George I, George II, George III, George IV, William IV, Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI, Elizabeth II.

Step 2

The student must say the sequence that they have learned. However, they must alternate between the sequence and counting. An example should make this clear:

The student says the eight planets that orbit the sun, in order from the sun, while counting backward in twos from 60: “Mercury, 60, Venus, 58, Earth, 56, Mars, 54, Jupiter, 52, Saturn, 50, Uranus, 48, Neptune, 46, Mercury, 44, Venus, 42, Earth, 40, Mars, 38, Jupiter, 36, Saturn, 34, Uranus, 32, Neptune, 30,” et cetera.

Note: Counting backward in twos is just an example. One can start by counting forward in ones. 

As the student progresses, one should let them learn a new sequence. Alternate between learning a new sequence and practicing already mastered sequences. For example, use

      • Monday to learn a new sequence (Step 1),

      • Tuesday to practice a sequence that had already been mastered (Step 2),

      • Wednesday to learn a new sequence (which will be the same sequence as Monday’s Step 1), and

      • Thursday to practice a sequence that had already been mastered (Step 2), etc.

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