• 24 May 2019
The Importance Of Working Memory

The Importance Of Working Memory

Sep 14, 2017

How working memory is key to learning and ways that students can work on strengthening it.

Working memory is defined as “memory that involves storing, focusing attention on, and manipulating information for a relatively short period of time” (source). It’s the type of memory we use to recall information while actively engaged in an activity. Examples of situations requiring working memory include entering your PIN number at an ATM, adding a tip to a restaurant bill without a calculator, recalling a recipe while cooking, and remembering an acquaintance’s name when running into them at the store. Understood.org describes working memory using video recording as a helpful example:

“When you make a video, visual and auditory information is stored for safekeeping and can be played back when you need to access it. You don’t necessarily need to pay attention to details when you’re filming. Working memory, on the other hand, isn’t just stored for later use. It has to be accessed and “played back” immediately—even as new information is arriving and needing to be incorporated.”

Working memory is essential in many situations and learning is no exception. Because it’s necessary for students to thrive academically, it’s important to work on exercises to strengthen and improve this cognitive process. Read on for a look at why students benefit from working memory and how tutors can help them improve their skills in this area.

Why is working memory important for students?

Effective learning depends heavily on working memory as new information is continuously built upon previous knowledge as a student progresses. Being able to hold information in mind and recall previous learnings while engaged in class and during homework is imperative for students to complete work and develop academically. Examples of exercises that demand working memory include:

  • Recalling facts. Students are required to utilize working memory to remember facts during tests, homework, and class discussion.

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

  • Following instructions. Students must be able to recall spoken instructions from teachers to be able to perform tasks that were asked of them.

  • Solving problems. Math, reading, writing, science, and all other subjects require working memory when answering questions and solving problems. Students must be able to determine which equation to use, for example, when working on a math problem.

  • Taking notes. Students must be able to hold key points made by the teacher in mind to transcribe them.

While all students have some degree of working memory skills, abilities in this area can broadly vary. Students who have the strongest working memory often have a much easier time recalling information and perform well academically without needing to put in as much work as their peers who don’t have the same level of this cognitive process. These students typically recall information easily, follow instructions closely, are actively engaged in discussion, and volunteer answers frequently. If you notice that your student is often forgetting or not completing instructions, having trouble paying attention, rarely offering answers to questions, and generally having issues with school work, they may have poor working memory skills.

How can students’ working memory be improved?

Fortunately, there are many proven exercises tutors can work on with their students to help improve working memory. Because these skills are so important in learning, all students can benefit from improvement regardless of their current ability level. To help your students strengthen their working memory skills, try incorporating the following exercises into your sessions:

  1. Free recall. Read a list of words or show a group of images to your student and have them try to list what they heard or saw in any order.

  2. Task division. Teach your student how to break up information, instructions, and assignments into smaller chunks to make work more easily digestible.
    Visualization. Read a short story to your student and have them recall and describe certain aspects through imagery.

  3. Reading comprehension. Have your student actively take notes, highlight, ask questions, and discuss reading passages with you during sessions.

  4. Step listing. When working on math with your student, teach them to record each step to solve a problem to ensure they aren’t relying on mental calculations alone.

  5. Quiz creation. Instead of administering a quiz to your student, have them make up problems for their own quiz to improve memory recall.

Working memory is an important skill for students to strengthen. While everyone possesses it to some degree, those who actively work to improve it and excel at it can benefit greatly academically. Fortunately, there are many effective and simple exercises that tutors can incorporate into sessions to help students strengthen this skill.


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