Improve Working Memory


Working memory allows individuals to hold onto information, work with information, and use the information to learn and perform specific tasks. There are two types of working memory: auditory memory and visual-spacial memory. Working memory is like a temporary “sticky note” that allows students to remember and visualize numbers, and other concepts necessary to succeed in school and life. It also holds onto information, so the brain can work with it briefly and connect it to additional concepts. Kids that have attention and learning issues will struggle with this vital function.

Working memory helps the brain organize new information for long-term storage and it also affects many aspects of learning. Kids’ that struggle with working memory feel frustrated and find it difficult to complete school work and other tasks. Poor working memory makes it challenging for them to retrieve information, hold onto facts and concepts, and make sense out of learned information. The part of the brain responsible for working memory is also responsible for maintaining focus and concentration. Implementing strategies to improve working memory will help kids feel more capable and confident.

Mnemonic devices are used to improve memory, but paying attention also plays a big role in the process. Four important practices that will help students learn and recall information are: engaging in an adequate rehearsal of information, distributing study time with minimized interference, adequately processing and organizing information, and enriching encoding with mnemonic devices.

Rehearsing information is necessary for memorizing key facts and concepts. Retention will improve with increased rehearsal and helps kids transfer information from short-term into long-term memory. The use of flashcards can be an effective tool to help students practice and memorize information. Although studying is an important part of the learning process, it’s also critical to minimize distractions.

Scheduled study time and minimal interference are key to successful recall of important facts and concepts. Students who “cram” for tests generally don’t perform as well as those who distribute their study time more efficiently. Evidence indicates that retention tends to be better when studying is distributed over a period of time. If an upcoming test is two days away the optimal interval between study sessions appears to be around 24 hours. Cramming is not an efficient approach to studying for exams (Dempster, 1996). During study sessions, adequate “breaks” should be taken to better the retention of information. Interference can be a major cause of forgetting so it’s important that kids study in an environment that is free from distractions. Minimizing interference will help them maximize the retention of information.

Levels of processing suggest that how often a student goes over the information for a test is less important than the depth of the processing practice. In other words, if a student spends hours studying for a test while listening to music or watching television the depth of processing will be minimal even though sufficient time is spent reviewing materials. If a student wants to remember and recall information for a test they need to fully engage to comprehend and remember the ideas and concepts. It’s important to note that retention will be greater if study materials are well organized; outlining materials from a textbook will also help with retention.

Mnemonic devices enrich encoding because they give important information personal meaning. When a student studies for a chemistry test it may be difficult for them to relate to polymers on a personal level and remembering content becomes challenging. Mnemonic devices like acronyms and narrative methods help make abstract material more meaningful and easier to recall. Other mnemonic devices depend on visual images that help create a second memory card for students and two codes are better than one. Although mnemonic devices aren’t the end all for students they can be a great starting place for those who struggle with working memory. Here’s a description of different methods that may be useful:

  1. Acronyms and Acrostics are used to help with recall of information. An acronym is an abbreviation of a word that has been composed of the initial letters or components of a phrase or word. An example of an acronym is FAQ – frequently asked questions. Acrostics are phrases and poems in which the first letter of each word (or line) help cue a person’s recall of information. To learn the order of musical notes many of us memorized the acronym “Every Good Boy Does Fine” to remember the piano keys E, G, B, D, and F. Using shortened forms of words and phrases help students recall information allowing them to perform better on tests.

  2. Narrative methods and rhymes are used to help with memorization of information. The narrative method creates a story by using the words in a specific order. The meaningfulness of the words helps link information in a specific order. Rhymes are another form of verbal mnemonics. An example of a popular rhyme used in school is “I before E except after C . . .” Rhyming is an effective way to help students learn and recall information.

  3. The link method involves forming a mental image of items to be memorized in a way that links them together and utilizes the visualization and association technique. This process helps to change abstract facts into mental pictures that are easy to remember. For example, to recall a specific list of words or items a student may visualize a popular rock star on the front of a magazine cover juggling the specific items. The more bizarre and visually strong the image the more helpful it will be.

  4. Method of Loci involves taking an imaginary walk along a familiar path where specific images of items that need to be remembered are associated with certain locations. It’s based on the assumption that kids can best remember places that they’re familiar with, so if they can link something they need to remember with a place that they know very well, the location will serve as a clue to help them remember specific information for a test. The method of loci can be effective in increasing retention. It also ensures that the items of information will be remembered in their correct order because the order is determined by the sequence of locations along the pathway.

Implementing four key steps will help improve working memory. First, it’s important to recognize that retention will improve when kids rehearse information like practicing spelling words and math facts because the information will transfer from short-term memory into long-term memory. Second, removing distractions while studying will also help increase retention and recall. Next, deep processing of information is much more effective long-term. How often a student reviews material is not as important as the depth of processing they engage in while studying. Finally, mnemonic devices can enrich the encoding process. They aren’t the answer in all situations, but they can personalize specific lists of information making it easier to remember. For many students, a weak working memory may create obstacles to learning but there are many strategies that can help kids navigate their way around these obstacles.

Working memory

About the author

Vikki Carrel

Academic Language Therapist, Multi-book Author, National Speaker

Vikki empowers people! She is an Academic Language Therapist, multi-book author and a national speaker. Vikki grew up in Salt Lake City, met her husband at the University of Utah, and has owned several companies across the United States. In 2010, Vikki and her husband moved back to Utah from Doylestown, Pennsylvania and she founded Vikki Carrel & Company, a speaking and training organization. While living in the East, Vikki was an Academic Therapist in the Central Bucks School District. She offers her students a specialized and comprehensive approach to learning and supports those who have cognitive deficits in reading and writing, helping them to rebuild their learning continuum step-by-step. Vikki offers her students a wide range of intensive and individualized interventions designed to remediate their learning problems. She creates and implements a treatment plan that utilizes information from a variety of sources (neuropsychological evaluation, IEP, 504 plan) and works with school administrators, teachers, parents and support staff to help each of her students succeed. Her strength is working with children that have ADHD, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and other language-based learning disabilities. Vikki holds a degree in Business Administration/Marketing and has a strong background in cognitive psychology. She and her husband have two grown sons and a daughter in law.

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