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Working Memory – what is it? And how can we improve it?

Working Memory

You’ve heard of Short-Term Memory, and Long-Term Memory – so what is Working Memory?  Working Memory is an area of the brain that we use while we are manipulating information.   Working Memory is used for carrying out complex tasks such as learning, reasoning and comprehension.  It is a limited space when comparing it to Long-Term memory, and it is also temporary.  The best analogy I have come across compares Working Memory to a diner plate.  We would use the diner plate for food and once the food is finished, we can reuse it again.  Working Memory is much the same.  We will use our working memory for a specific task, and after that is completed the area is “cleaned” and we can reuse it.

Working Memory forms part of the Executive Function of the brain.  Executive Functioning is what helps people plan, organise and complete tasks.  Working Memory is fundamental to learning.  It is through our working memory that we recall information, and can use that information for the task at hand.  Working Memory helps us pay attention, and maintain focus during a task.  For example, if a learner is performing a Long Division maths problem, it is the Working Memory that will help the learner follow the steps necessary to work out the problem.

Working Memory has two parts to it – we have an Auditory Working Memory, and a Visual Working Memory.  The Auditory Working Memory is a part we use to manipulate information we have heard and Visual Working Memory is the information we have seen.

Working memory touches all aspects of learning, and following instructions.  Issues arise for learners when their Working Memory is weak, and not functioning effectively. Going back to the plate analogy, if your plate isn’t big enough, it won’t hold enough.  I have a cousin who headed up a team of people for one of our big banks.  During a particularly stressful project one of her employees pleaded that he had “too much on his plate” and could not complete the task at hand.  My cousin retorted saying “well, get a bigger plate”.  We have often laughed about this as it is so out of character for my cousin’s personality.  If you were to meet my cousin you would never believe she could be so hard.  But what do we do when our learners “need a bigger plate”??  How do we improve learner’s Working Memory??

The good news is that working memory can be trained!  We can work on our working memory like we would exercise a muscle.  Research has shown that learners who have both auditory and visual stimuli at the same time retain the information and are able to use the information better.  This indicates that to get the best out of our working memory, we need to “feed” our brains both auditory and visual information.

To understand how our brains can use the auditory and visual parts of our working memory, let’s have a look at spelling.  A lot of learners who have working memory deficits are poor spellers.  They will learn the spelling for the week, and after the test they forget the words instantly.  What is happening here is the learners are using their Visual Memory for the spelling words, and not using their Auditory Memory.  To improve their working memory, learners need to “hear” the sounds within the words, not just visually recognise the words.  By using both the Auditory and Visual Working Memory together, the output is improved spelling.

Similarly, learners who have a poor working memory often don’t comprehend what they have read as effectively as others.  By engaging in “active reading” techniques, learners with poor working memories can hold onto more information.  Active reading involves jotting down notes, using highlighters for important sections, and reading aloud so that the learners can hear as well as see the text.

So how do we improve our child’s working memory?  Here are 8 boosters suggested by Understood.org (Morin, 2017)

  1. Work on Visual Skills
  2. Have your child teach you
  3. Suggest games that use Visual memory
  4. Play cards
  5. Active Reading
  6. Chunk Information into smaller bites
  7. Make it Multisensory
  8. Help Make the connections

References

Heyman, N. (2012, July 9). Auditory Memory: In one ear and out of the other? Retrieved from http://nikkiheyman.co.za: http://nikkiheyman.co.za/auditory-memory-in-one-ear-and-out-of-the-other/

McDougall, B. (2017, June 8). How Working Memory Gets Gobbled Up | The Importance of Letter Formation. Retrieved from https://thehappyhandwriter.co.za: https://thehappyhandwriter.co.za/how-working-memory-gets-gobbled-up-the-importance-of-letter-formation/

McLeod, S. A. (2012). Working Memory. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org: https://www.simplypsychology.org/working%20memory.html

Morin, A. (2017). 8 Working Memory Boosters . Retrieved from www.understood.org: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/learning-at-home/homework-study-skills/8-working-memory-boosters

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Brainbox Dinosaurs

Brain Box Dinosaurs Visual Perception

Customer review:

Learning Tools is an amazing site for mothers with children, even if it is aimed at teachers and schools. It offers educational gifts, games and resources for purchase online.

We bought the Brainbox Dinosaurs game from the Learning Tools website for our two and half year old boy recently. The purchasing system was simple and clear. The game was delivered promptly to our door by the Courier Guy and my boy loves it. Even our four year old daughter, who only likes fairies and princesses, got involved and we played the game all afternoon when it arrived.

It basically works as a memory game. There is a box of cards with pictures of dinosaurs, some basic information on one side and 6 questions referring to the pictures on the other. The kids choose a card, look at it, (as mine can’t yet read, I read the information on it to them), then they roll the dice and I ask them a question from the number they roll. The questions are fairly simple, and mostly they get them right. I came home from work the other day and they had all the cards laid out
on the floor like tiles as they were trying to decide on their favourite one.

There is a whole range of these Brainbox games on the Learning Tools site and the nature, science and maths ones, aimed at slightly older children, look like very worth while buys from where I am sitting on a cold and rainy day wondering what to do with the kids this afternoon.

Jessica Faircliff
Hardworking mother of two