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Working Memory, the Predictor of Learning

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Working Memory Improves IQ and Attentiveness

Most children are not getting the right kind of memory practice.  Long term memory is improved by tests – rote memorization, but it’s working memory that impacts IQ and learning capability, making it far more important

Working memory is defined by the NIH as the retention of a small amount of information in a readily accessible form. It facilitates planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving.

If you can hold, interpret and compare more information in your mind at one time, it makes sense that you will be able to think more deeply, leading to thinking associated with a higher IQ.

Furthermore, if you are able to hold more information in your mind, you can follow lectures more easily, understand the plots and flow of books more comfortably – make them more engaging and interesting, and therefore easier to pay attention.

Einstein’s Brain – Is a Good Long Term Memory Harmful?

Einstein is known to have a notoriously poor long term memory, which scientists wonder helped him.  Part of his brilliance was that his mind was not cluttered with rote learned information he didn’t need.

However, a bigger factor in the Einstein story is his working memory. He is thought to have been able to come up all the moving parts in his Theory of Relativity by holding and manipulating them at the same time in his working memory.

Working Memory Practice?

You’d think that given the potency of improvements in working memory to improve attentiveness and IQ that it would be consciously developed at school.

You’d be wrong in that assumption.

Even though working memory is a foundation for learning, if your child does not develop it normally – through listening and reading – it will not develop. And so, it’s not surprising to know that one in 10 students have a low working memory, a gap that will not close without intervention.

Because working memory is foundational skill, it is often diagnosed along with auditory processing disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD.

This is not a surprise.  If a child has auditory processing delays, working memory development will be hampered through lack of practice – if the language being heard is muddy, it cannot be held in working memory.  Since dyslexia, ADHD-PI and many other learning issues have their source in processing delays, the presence of working memory in their diagnoses is to be expected.

Short Term Memory vs. Working Memory

Working memory used to be called short-term memory, and you even see it used as a synonym. However, there’s a lot more to working memory than just the short-term memory component. They’re all part of executive functioning skills.

Here’s a good definition with handy quantifications, thanks to The Human Memory website. We’ll start with ‘short-term memory’ to associate the topic with that common layperson term:

“Short-term memory acts as a kind of ‘scratch-pad’ for temporary recall of the information which is being processed at any point in time, and has been referred to as ‘the brain’s Post-it note’. It is static –  a way to hold and recall small amount of information (typically around 7 items or even less) in mind in an active, readily-available state for a short period of time (typically from 10 to 15 seconds, or sometimes up to a minute).”

(By the way, children tend to hold less than seven items – more like a couple – particularly if they have learning or processing difficulties.)

Active not Static

Meanwhile, working memory is active – information is held and manipulated. It spans auditory memory and visual-spatial memory, which understood.org explains this way. They’re like skills you’d use to make a video: “Auditory memory records what you’re hearing while visual-spatial memory captures what you’re seeing.”

But, wait there’s more. To ‘see’ the film again, you’ll need to play it back immediately to access it even while you’re trying to incorporate new information. It can get tricky if you can’t replay that video in your mind (thinking of it as a piece of information nested in your brain) while you’re being bombarded with other information you’re trying to connect to it. If you’re confused by how much information I tried to shove into that sentence, you’ll get a sense of what poor working memory skills are like!

In short, working memory is about recalling and processing relevant information. When you recall information, you’re remembering it in a specific sequence. As for processing, this centres on controlled attention – a cognitive function – that’s linked to processing emotions.

So, why is working memory so powerful?

For starters, it has a pivotal role in emotional regulation. Get that right and the other requirements for learning, such as attention span, fall into place.

But let’s pan back a tad to explain where and how working memory fits into learning, making knowledge your own. Atkinson & Shiffrin proposed what’s the accepted model of human information processing. It comprises sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory. So information comes into your sensory memory first, then it goes to your working memory. If you don’t rehearse, encode and retrieve that learning, you’ve diminished chances of it hitting long-term memory. That’s Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve in action.

Cognitive Load Theory

It’s important to mention Cognitive Load Theory here. Coined by John Sweller in 1988, it relates to the amount of information your working memory can hold at any one time. It’s limited, but thankfully it can be extended. One way highlights that the brain processes visual and auditory information separately. As well, you can expand the capacity of your working memory if you associate the information you’re learning with something you already know. It’s like your brain’s already warmed up.

Students use working memory in these ways to learn:

  • Accessing information – both auditory and visual-spatial – to make sense of it
  • Remembering instructions
  • Working out what they need to focus on or pay attention to
  • Learning to read, and
  • Learning to do math.

Psychologist Tracey Packiam Alloway, an expert in working memory particularly in the school setting, suggests that IQ is less of a reliable indicator of success than working memory. She talks about the average seven-year-old being able to hold two things in their memory when doing a complex processing task. That makes sense why some children can sound out each phoneme in a word but can’t blend them. For instance, such a learner might struggle when there are three phonemes in a word – they might have forgotten the first one.

Models for understanding working memory

Back in 1986, a foundational model for working memory was developed with Baddeley distinguishing between a central executive and two slave systems. The central system took responsibility for attention, control of action, and problem-solving – regulatory functions – whereas the slave systems involved a phonological loop and a “visuospatial sketchpad”.

Researchers are still seeking consensus on how the visuospatial working memory is organized. In other words, they can’t find a clear link between visuospatial working memory and reading decoding or reading fluency, for instance. Clarity here will help children with mathematical learning disabilities , too, for example, because research shows this is due to working memory impairments.

Understanding your child’s profile

Research suggests that working memory assessments could contribute key information about children’s cognitive function beyond what a typical psychoeducational measure would show. The researchers looked at a “comprehensive battery” of tests on central executive, phonological, visuospatial, and binding work memory tasks. Their focus was 300 children in second grade with dyslexia and developmental language disorder of both.

“Given that working memory correlates with cognitive aptitude, working memory scores provide information that may prove relevant for how well a child can adjust to, or sometimes even overcome, challenges presented by dyslexia or Delayed Language Disorder,” the researchers said.

Options at home to help working memory

There’s an array of working memory boosters on offer. Some you’ll be able to do at home or your child’s teacher can employ them such as nudging them to tweak their teaching practices (not confusing students by talking while showing a PowerPoint with different text is one!). Tips include:

  • Encouraging your child to visualize what they’ve just learned whether it be by reading or hearing the information
  • Asking them to teach you by explaining and sense-making that information
  • Playing card games such as Memory or making sentences from license plates
  • Suggesting they read more actively with a highlighter pen, annotations, forming questions in their mind as they read, talk out aloud
  • Using multisensory strategies – draw on seeing, reading walking and talking to help embed information even into a memory palace, and
  • Connecting new information with what they already know

Not surprisingly, there are a few cognitive therapies that target working memory and learning.  Cogmed is an intensive therapy, available only through licensed clinicians.

Fast ForWord for Working Memory

For children with working memory delays accompanied with delays in language or reading, Fast ForWord, provided by Gemm Learning is an option.  Fast ForWord exercises a range of cognitive skills, with a heavy focus on working memory. It is based on the assumption that cognitive learning skills are connected, and that delays in one, e.g., language processing, holds back others, e.g., working memory.

Learn more about our program for working memory here.

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