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Working Memory: important but overlooked

Dr Jonny Craig is an Educational Psychologist and Director at Applied Psychologies. He LOVES Working Memory...

“I love speaking to people about Working Memory. I’ll tell anyone who will listen!”

Important but overlooked.

Despite being one of the most significant predictors of academic achievement, Working Memory is often overlooked during teacher training. In fact, I never even covered the topic during my four year undergraduate degree or within my three year Educational Psychology doctorate course!

This means that, despite its importance, most teachers and teaching assistants, through no fault of their own, don’t know much about Working Memory and, more importantly, aren’t sure how to help children when they experience difficulties in this area.

So what is Working Memory?

Working Memory, defined by Gathercole and Alloway (2011) as…

The ability to hold in mind and manipulate information over short periods of time…

…consists of several interlinked systems within the brain, which is where the confusion often arises. Our short-term memories stores (we have two of these…more on that later!) actually make up part of our Working Memory system, alongside the ‘central executive’, and the ‘episodic buffer’.

Our short-term memories are sufficient when information just needs to be stored temporarily; however, if the information also needs to be manipulated, or stored while performing another task at the same time, then our full Working Memory system needs to be employed.

Baddeley (e.g. 2000) describes the four main components of the Working Memory system as follows:

The ‘Central Executive’: plays a supervisory role in focussing, dividing and switching attention.
The ‘Phonological Loop’: temporarily stores verbal (mainly speech-based) information.
The ‘Visuospatial Sketchpad’: temporarily stores visual and spatial information.
The ‘Episodic Buffer’: links long-term knowledge to other parts of the Working Memory system.

The diagram below shows how these components link together to form the Working Memory system:

There are two things worth noting about the diagram of the Working Memory system:

  1. The arrows between components go both ways, meaning that we are able to transfer information from our short-term memories to long-term memory (otherwise we’d never be able to remember anything for longer than about 20 seconds!)

  2. The two short-term memory systems are not linked in any way, it’s as if they ‘speak different languages’, which has important implications for teaching and learning.

The implication of this is that, in order to allow children the best possible chance of remembering something in the long term, we need to present all important information visually AND verbally. This enables them to employ both of their short-term memory stores, and is known as ‘dual coding theory’ (Paivio, 1986).

OK…but what else do we know about Working Memory?

Pretty much everything we do in life relies heavily on Working Memory. We use it to make sense of everything we read, for every calculation we perform, to remember every instruction that we receive and to follow every conversation that we have, and this is what makes it such an important cognitive skill for children in the classroom. It is; however, a very fragile and limited system, limited by…

  • Capacity: Four to five “chunks” of information (on average for an adult)

  • Duration: 10-20 seconds, unless we do something with the information to get it into long-term memory (apply it / discuss it / teach it)

  • Focus: Distractions and interruptions, even something as simple as an unrelated thought (I’m usually distracted by thinking about what I might have for dinner that night)

  • Emotional state: Particularly anxiety

Often misattributed

Another reason why I’m so keen to spread the word about Working Memory is that difficulties in this area are often misattributed to problems with motivation, behaviour and particularly attention. So much so in my experience that I now always perform a brief Working Memory assessment with every young person who I work with, just to check that difficulties in this area don’t underlie the presenting problem. It is always worth considering whether Working Memory difficulties could be the root cause of a problem that any child is experiencing in the classroom. Typical signs of working memory difficulties include:

  • Regularly abandoning tasks before completion

  • Difficulties in starting a task independently after instructions are given out

  • Problems with understanding what they read

  • Losing place during a task

  • Becoming withdrawn during group discussions despite appropriate social skills

  • Being easily distracted

  • Forgetting what they were going to say

Of course, difficulties in any of these areas does not necessarily mean that a child has Working Memory difficulties, as there are lots of other reasons that such behaviours may occur; however, it’s always worth bearing in mind as a potential cause.

Effective support

The final major reason that I think everybody should know about Working Memory is that, in order to effectively support children with Working Memory difficulties there is no need to radically change how we support our young people. Good practice consists of lots of small

and relatively simple strategies, and the training sessions that we run talk through over 60 of these (yes…over 60!) in detail.

However; a person much wiser than myself once said, “If you chase 2 rabbits then you will catch neither”, so I’ve just included a few strategies to have a go at in the meantime. Let us know if you try them out, or if you have any ideas of your own!

  • Try to supplement all of the verbal information that you give to children with visual cues, particularly for the most important instructions.

  • Ensure that when you are giving out task instructions none of your students are doing anything else at the same time. Even writing the date into their book, or getting out of their seat to go and get a pencil makes Working Memory failure much more likely!

  • Utilise brain breaks approximately every 20-30 minutes during lessons, as these have been shown to promote concentration and reduce stress for students and teachers! These only need to be about a minute long and should ideally incorporate some form of physical movement. You can even build learning material into these if you like. One good example is to ask students if they can twirl their right foot in a clockwise direction and try to draw a six in the air at the same time with their right index finger. See if any of them can do it without their foot automatically changing direction.

Try it yourself…it’s weird!
  • Making sure that you give instructions out in the order in which they are to be completed. Sounds obvious…but how often do we say things like…”before you do the green worksheet you must have put your book in the red box, but only after you’ve written the date”. I used to do this all the time without even realising…but doing so almost guarantees Working Memory failure!

If you would like to ask any questions, or have any comments about this article, or if you would like to find out more about the 90-minute Working Memory workshops that we run then contact us at

Our sessions, in addition to everything mentioned in this article, cover the following areas:

  • Finding out how good (or not!) your own Working Memory is

  • Assessing Working Memory

  • Developmental changes to Working Memory

  • Identifying Working Memory difficulties in the classroom

  • Causes of Working Memory difficulties

  • Over 60 (yes…over 60!) strategies for helping children with their Working Memory in the classroom

Dr Jonny Craig is an Educational Psychologist and Director at Applied Psychologies.

His professional interests include Working Memory (obviously!), Cooperative Learning and EMDR therapy.

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