The Role Working Memory Plays in Learning

By Dr. Raymond Huntington

In school, your child relies on their memory to learn. But there are different types of memory that come into play during different situations. Working memory is defined by Psychology Today as “a form of memory that allows a person to temporarily hold a limited amount of information at the ready for immediate mental use.” It is critical for all kinds of mental processes and for learning new things.  

How do children use working memory in school? 

A child’s working memory is in use when they recall all the little things that go into more complex things. For example:  

  • When a teacher gives multi-step directions, your child must be able to pay attention to that information and store it long enough to retrieve it for subsequent parts of directions.
  • When a teacher tells students to put their names at the top of their papers and write down their student numbers, your child must hold onto that information long enough to actually do this. 
  • When a teacher introduces a guest speaker by name and asks the students to write that name down, students must tap into their working memory to retain those details for use thereafter. 
  • When a child must remember part of a math problem to complete the rest of it (for example, completing the sum of three numbers in a numerator divided by the sum of three numbers in the denominator), that requires working memory. 

Think of the working memory as your child’s personal white board where they can jot down information and manipulate it. It enables students to do complex work by accessing short-term information.  

How can you help your child improve their working memory?  

There are several ways to build and strengthen the working memory:  

  1. Chunking – At Huntington, we’re big proponents of the chunking method: taking larger tasks and breaking them down into smaller, more manageable chunks. You can do this during homework time, by helping your child break down their homework into specific tasks and assigning times to those tasks. 
  2. Play memory-based games. There are many games and apps out there. Good examples of games that give children practice retaining information while also using it are chess, checkers, puzzles, sudoku, card games, memory card games and crossword puzzles. 
  3. Have your child repeat things back to you. Ever ask your child to do something and discover five minutes later that they have not only not done it, but also forgotten what you asked? For children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, this is a common problem. Give clear, concise directions and ask your child to repeat them back to you. Do this without stress or guilt to help your child get into the habit of active, focused listening. 
  4. Read, read, read. There’s a strong connection between working memory and reading comprehension. As your child reads words, their memory is hard at work decoding them and understanding them while continuing to absorb each sentence, each paragraph and the story overall. At a young age, have your child read aloud to you. If your child is a middle school or high school student reading independently, explore these tips to get your teen to embrace daily reading 

What can you do if your child’s working memory is weak?  

If your child struggles with things like focus and attention, reading comprehension, math or other subjects, there could be several issues contributing. Your child might benefit from a personalized tutoring program created with your child’s individual needs in mind to develop the building blocks for school success—and the working memory. Pay attention to the below issues with your child:  

  • Homework taking significantly longer than it should 
  • Executive functioning is weak or nonexistent 
  • Inconsistent or dropping grades
  • Difficulty starting homework and procrastination
  • Inattention/focus challenges during homework and daily tasks
  • Reading problems
  • Difficulty recalling what they learned during the school days (and therefore, homework difficulty) 

If your child struggles with any of these issues, Huntington Learning Center can help. Call us at 1-800 CAN LEARN today to discuss how we can help your child improve their grades and skills and build their confidence and motivation, no matter their grade level