Working memory is one’s ability to hold on to and work with information for a short amount of time. It is one of the executive skills. Often working memory is accompanied by ADHD or an attention disorder. Just like slow processing speed, interacting with someone who has short working memory can be frustrating. At first glance, it can seem like students with short working memory are not listening or putting effort into what they have been asked to do. However, the reality is, often these students’ working memory is overloaded. If a teacher has given 4 verbal directions all in one breath, students with short working memory have a hard time remembering everything they were asked to do. They execute what they can remember, which is often not every direction given. In this sense, short working memory appears willful although it is not.
Working memory is like a sticky note on your brain; some people have bigger sticky notes than others. Those with bigger sticky notes are able to remember more, while those with smaller sticky notes are able to remember less. If a parent says, “Go upstairs, and brush your teeth. Then wash your face, put on your PJ’s, and get to bed,” someone with good working memory can execute each step in that sequence of directions. A child with poor working memory cannot absorb, process, and remember all of those directions, so they forget bits and pieces. This can be really tricky because it appears as if the child is being defiant.
Imagine you have a bunch of tabs open on your computer, something distracts you, and you come back to your computer to see that the screen is completely frozen or all the tabs have crashed and been erased. This is what it’s like for a student who has short working memory to try to remember everything. Often, this can cause students a lot of anxiety because they try so hard to remember different pieces of information which they end up forgetting.
In the classroom, students are asked to read, remember, and then analyze a piece of content. Maybe the teacher asks the students to recall the events of a book and then connect them to the plot. For students with short working memory, this is very difficult because they have a hard time remembering all of the content’s details, which makes analysis quite hard. Students with short working memory often hate reading because they have to read a sentence or passage over and over again to seemingly no avail.
Learning virtually adds a whole new layer to working memory. Students learning virtually now have so many distractions coming at them at all times. They might be “in class” on Zoom with their phone next to them, a TV on in the next room, and an Xbox sitting next to their desk. For students who have short working memory and ADHD, this set up makes learning very difficult. The reality is, learning from home presents a new set of challenges.
How to Help
There are many practical ways to help students who have short working memory. Some include visual cues, lots of lists, and chunking. Students who struggle in this area need to externalize their environment. This means setting alarms on their phone, putting sticky notes on their laptop or posting a visual list somewhere in their room (a dry erase board is a great option). Our tutors will often print out a student’s assignments, instructions, and grading rubrics, so the students have everything in one place and do not need to switch from one tab (or binder) to the next. This provides a clear roadmap and reminder of what the student needs to complete.
Students with short working memory can easily get overloaded, so we encourage working on assignments or studying in small chunks. When students get overloaded, they often shut down or go to something much easier (like video games or Netflix). Thus, students with short working memory procrastinate because often when they try to remember something, they forget. This is why writing is often so hard; students have to transfer thoughts, ideas, and knowledge onto paper. These things DO NOT mean that students cannot accomplish tasks that require lots of working memory, but it DOES mean that these tasks are harder for them. Our goal at WA is to show students ways to make short working memory more manageable. Studying a small amount of information each day over a long span of time ultimately converts short term memory to long term memory. This is why chunking is SO important!
If short working memory is accompanied by ADHD or another attention disorder, medication can be helpful. In addition, working with an academic specialist helps students create systems and habits that work for THEM. Our work at WA goes beyond helping students academically; we help students develop skills and strategies that will benefit them for a lifetime.
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About Evelyn Wright
Evelyn Wright is the Director of Wright Academics, a tutoring business created to target kids’ specific needs. Her passion is helping students and families succeed so that they achieve their maximum potential in and out of the classroom.
With over 25 years of experience working with children and their families in public and private schools, as well as in private practice, Evelyn’s focus is understanding the individual’s learning profile, guiding families of children with learning differences and matching students to the tutor or coach that best fits the student. She believes in not only matching educational needs to the right tutor’s skills, but matching a student to the tutor with the right personality.