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The Science of Learning: What’s memory got to do with it?

By February 20, 2019 No Comments

student memoryImagine a student who is well adjusted socially but . . .

•  Is reserved in group activities; rarely contributes to classroom discussions or activities.
•  Has difficulty completing tasks.
•  Appears to not follow instructions.
•  Is reported as not paying attention, having a short attention span, or “zoning out.”
•  Makes poor academic progress.

What could be causing these problems?

One might not initially consider memory, particularly working memory, as the mechanism at work in these types of young learners’ struggles. However, research has shown that working memory problems, even in the absence of diagnosed developmental disabilities, can result in learning challenges for students (Dehn, 2008; Gathercole, Lamont, & Alloway, 2006; Gathercole & Alloway, 2007; Holmes, Gathercole, and Dunning, 2010; Willingham, 2009).

What is working memory?

Working memory is the ability to hold in mind and mentally manipulate information over short periods of time. It is a critical, basic component of memory that supports complex mental activities that become more and more important as children progress in school.

For example, in a young child, working memory would support a process as basic as writing down a sentence while trying to figure out how to spell each individual word. As student learning progresses, the tasks that are required of them become increasingly complex. For example, a multi-digit multiplication problem requires holding numbers in memory, calculating products in successive pairs, adding new products to working memory in successive stages, and then adding together the products held in working memory to determine a solution.

As you can glean from this example, there are several stages in a complex task where a student could lose information from working memory and ultimately be unable to complete the task. Chronic working memory failures in children can lead to lack of persistence, task avoidance, and ultimately, learning deficits.

How can teachers support students who struggle with working memory?

There is substantial variability in working memory among students. Even students whose working memory is at the lower end of normal can lack engagement and fail to keep up. Gaps in working memory tend to increase as children get older, so it’s important for teachers to be able to recognize these problems before the student falls too far behind. Signs of struggle include:

  • Incomplete recall.
  • Failing to follow instructions or forgetting pieces of instruction.
  • Place-keeping errors (skipping or repeating words, or missing large chunks of tasks).
  • Task abandonment.

Instructional coaches can help teachers develop a memory toolkit for students to use daily. Teachers can employ a number of strategies from the toolkit to help students retain critical information. For example, they might:

  • Evaluate the demands that various tasks place on working memory. Specifically, be aware of tasks that are longer or more complex (e.g., when a student is asked to perform a challenging mental activity while simultaneously holding on to information) and/or tasks that include unfamiliar content.
  • Restructure long and/or complex tasks into separate, independent steps.
  • Reduce the overall amount of info to be stored at one time.
  • Increase the relevance, or familiarity, of information.
  • Simplify the linguistic structures used in verbal materials by breaking down complex sentences into easier-to-handle chunks.
  • Make available external devices to be used as memory aids, e.g., white boards, number lines, printed notes, voice recorders, wall charts, and printed “useful spellings.”
  • Frequently repeat important information, e.g., classroom management instructions, task specific instructions, and detailed content for an activity.

Lastly, students can be encouraged to help themselves by using memory-relieving strategies such as:

  • Rehearsal: the use of repetition to help knowledge retrieval, procedures, and problem solving become automatic. Examples: repeating important information sub-vocally; using the same process repeatedly to solve a problem; repeating classroom routines in the same way on a daily basis.
  • Memory aids (see above). Additional possibilities include posters of multiplication tables, spellings of common words, and academic task directions.
  • Organizational strategies, e.g., breaking tasks into component parts and making sure that earlier steps in a complex task become routine before moving on to the next step.
  • Asking for help when important information has been forgotten.

An understanding of working memory is just one example of how the science of learning can be applied to classroom instruction. For further reading, see Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, a white paper by McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin, and:

Dehn, M. J. (2008). Working Memory and Academic Learning: Assessment and Intervention. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Gathercole, S. E., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. P. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. In S. Pickering (Ed.), Working Memory and Education. London: Academic Press.

Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T. P. (2007). Understanding Working Memory:  A Classroom Guide. London: Harcourt Assessment.

Holmes, J., Gathercole, S. E., & Dunning, D. L. (2010). Poor working memory: Impact and interventions. In J. Holmes (Ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior Developmental Disorders and Interventions, Volume 39 (pp. 1–43). Burlington, VT: Academic Press.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tedra ClarkTedra Clark, research director at McREL International, provides strategic leadership in developing, planning, and implementing research endeavors in education, particularly in the areas of school climate, instructional practices, formative assessment, and professional development.


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