I Train Minds

strategies that make learning stick

Dyslexia Intervention & Language Development

Debbie Ehrhardt


Winchester, Virginia

Articles & Book Reviews

Articles & Book Reviews

What is Working Memory and How Can It Be Improved?

Posted on July 28, 2020 at 9:20 PM

 Working memory, the portion of memory which allows us to learn new information and manipulate data, acts as your mental workspace filled with sticky notes…things you don’t need to move to long-term memory...things you just need for a bit then you’ll forget. For example, a few items needed at the grocery store, mental arithmetic, verbal directions.

A student with poor working memory might struggle to complete multistep problems, skip steps in directions, be easily distracted, have difficulty copying from the board. They might have other learning disabilities, like ADHD or language deficits, that mask the working memory deficit.

Working memory is limited in capacity and depends on the person’s age and type of input (visual, spatial, etc). For example, a preschooler can hold a maximum of 2 chunks of information in working memory, while adolescents and adults can manipulate four pieces of information at a time (Cowan, 2001). The time span of an individual being able to hold something in working memory is age dependent as well. Preadolescents have an average time limit of 5 to 10 minutes, whereas adolescents and adults have an average of 10 to 20 minutes (Dehn, 2001)…this means you have a maximum of 20 minutes to introduce a new topic, give meaning to it, ask meaningful questions, and check for understanding before your student’s eyes glaze over. The good news is there are interventions that can improve working memory performance.

First and foremost is the overall health of the child. Proper nutrition and sleep are necessary for resetting working memory each night.  Giving the child coping skills to manage life stressors will allow the student to focus on learning new tasks while managing their stress.  Implicitly teaching memory strategies (mnemonics, semantic rehearsal) will increase the student’s self-efficacy and result in a confident, life-long learner.

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