working memory

What is working memory, and why is it so important? May 19, 2023

Working memory is just one of the many types of memory processes our brain uses, but one that is incredibly important in so many ways, from everyday tasks to learning new skills and information.

Short-term Memory is a linear process. A good example of this is remembering where we put our keys down or what time an appointment is scheduled to take place.

Working Memory, on the other hand, has more to it than just remembering. It enables us to store information in our Working Memory for a few seconds, just like Short-term Memory. However it also allows us to manipulate that information for a particular purpose.

For example, when we’re asked a mental arithmetic question such as 133 x 12, we hold both the question in our memory and work out the answer simultaneously. It may be that the environment is noisy, in which case we are then also add another task: blocking out the distracting noise and concentrating on working out the sum in question. Working Memory is involved in this entire process: it is both remembering and doing. Another example is reading and understanding what is read.

“Working memory is a better predictor of academic success than IQ.” ”


The strength of our Working Memory underpins cognitive development and learning

Working Memory, and its strength, underpins all academic success.

Dr Tracey P Alloway, psychologist and author, has done extensive research into Working Memory and learning. She says “Working memory is a better predictor of academic success than IQ.” An IQ score has a foundation on acquired knowledge, whereas a working memory score has a foundation on thinking skills in the moment.

The working memory model was first proposed by British scientists Baddley and Hitch in the 1970s. It comprises four components.

1.   the phonological loop – temporary storage of sounds

2.   the visual spatial (or visuo-spatial) sketch pad – temporary storage of visual information

3.   the episodic buffer – the calibrating tool for items stored

4.   the central executive – the bit that works out what has been stored

The storage areas are: the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketch pad

The phonological loop is the part of the working memory that holds onto what we hear or when we process sounds. So when a child is learning to read, the processing of each individual sound, and blending of them together into recognizable sequences that we can understand, such as word, is done in part by the phonological loop. When we listen to a conversation, the phonological loop is holding onto what has been said. If an individual has poor auditory memory, their phonological loop cannot store enough information for the brain to process into something meaningful.

The visuo-spatial sketch pad, on the other hand, is the temporary storage of visual information and visuo-spatial information. When a person reads, each letter is stored and held in a visuospatial sketch pad for a while being understood.

Of the two temporary storage areas, the phonological loop can only hold the information for a couple of seconds, while the visuospatial sketch pad can be double that. So, what we hear is more fragile in our memory than what we see.

The role of the episodic buffer is to move information between the two storage areas and calibrate what is heard and seen. So when a child is learning to read, the letters are held in both the visuo-spatial sketch pad, and sounded out in the phonological loop, and information is shunted between the two storage areas. The episodic buffer is the newest area discovered of the working memory model, first described in the early 2000s.

The central executive is where meaning comes to life, based on information passed to it by the episodic buffer. So, in our example of learning to read, the child decoding may sound out the letters seen, but the actual cognition takes place in the central executive. It is here that meaning is worked out.

If this is your first time learning about working memory, and you’re not familiar with some of these terms, this might seem complicated at first glance. If so, the important question you are probably asking now is:

How does weak working memory affect learning outcomes?

Children and adults who have poor working memory can struggle to remember what they read, or having trouble holding and recalling facts when putting forward an argument. Below is a checklist of problems a person may have when they have a weak working memory:

·       Is easily distracted when working on or doing something that is not highly interesting

·       Has trouble waiting their turn, for example, in a conversation or when waiting in line to get help

·       Struggles with reading comprehension and has to read through texts repeatedly to understand

·       Struggles with problem-solving that requires holding information in mind, for example, mental maths calculations

·       Is inconsistent in remembering math facts

·       Struggles with completing tasks, especially multiple stepped tasks

·       Has difficulty remembering long instructions given in several steps, for example, following recipes, directions or school/work assignments

·       Struggles to understand the context in a story or a conversation

·       Has difficulties when planning and organising something that needs to be done in separate steps, e.g. writing

·       Has difficulty staying focused during cognitively demanding tasks, but attends well when cognitive demands are minimal

·       Has difficulty integrating new information with their prior knowledge

·       When called on, forgets what they were planning to say

·       Has difficulty taking notes and listening at the same time

How does Working Memory affect everyday life?

Having a weak Working Memory means the brain gets overloaded quickly, and an overwhelming feeling of stress is experienced. If a person cannot hold enough facts at one point, they may use tools, such as writing things down, having reminders, or using calculators and apps to help. This is something we all may struggle with at some point in our lives.

However, the biggest impact is when children have working memory deficits. They cannot grasp what is being learnt with any ease, and must spend longer than their peers to acquire the same knowledge. Having a poor working memory is a disadvantage and must be worked on throughout a person’s lifetime. In infancy, Working memory grows at an expediential level up to age 16. From age sixteen to age 29, the working memory growth plateaus. After age 29, working memory declines.

How to improve poor working memory

We can help working memory using the following strategies:

·   Break down long lists of numbers into chunks of smaller numbers, i.e. a phone number can be 07787865345 or 0778 786 5345

·   Developing habits and routines to remove the need to remember

·   Physical exercise can contribute to being able to take the stress of a higher cognitive load when doing mentally challenging tasks

·   Creating your own mnemonics, or using existing ones, can help you remember complex spellings or information

Building working memory

Building working memory takes considerable time and is a constant challenge. The above list can help lessen the load, but there are also things we can do to help build our working memory, such as:

1.   Reading for a short duration and then writing down everything you read and remember. With practice, you can increase the volume of what you read and increase the amount you recall. With younger children, this can be done using picture books and having books read to them.

2.   Doing puzzles faster with increased complexity. These can start off with simple physical puzzles, and be built up.

3.   For children, the best way is to provide dictation exercises. These can be done as a structured learning exercise.

4.   Listening and repeating. When you hear something complex, by repeating it to yourself, or asking a child to repeat to you, you are more likely to retain it for later when you need it.

5.   Do mental maths calculations in your head every day for 5 minutes.

6.   Puzzles such as crossword or sudoku.

7.   Playing cards and board games that need the players to think of winning strategies.

8. Meditation for 5 to 15minutes every day is scientfically proven to help build cognitive connections to improve capacity.

Check your child’s Working Memory at no cost

If you are curious about your child’s working memory skills a checklist is available to use at no cost.

If you have questions or concerns about your child let’s arrange to talk! Book a discovery call and find out how quickly we can make a difference.