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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Put Working Memory to Work in Learning

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer
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An illustration of a hand with string tied around each finger.

Editor's Note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University.

Working memory involves the conscious processing and managing of information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension. It has been described as the brain's conductor. Memory has long been viewed as a key aspect of learning, but as the emphasis in educational standards has shifted away from rote memorization and toward the knowledge and skills needed to process new information, working memory is increasingly taking center stage.

There is an explosion of research today with the aim of understanding how this important function works and how to enhance it. However, the term working memory was first used more than 50 years ago to describe the role of recall in planning and carrying out behavior. In the 1970s and '80s, British psychologist Alan Baddeley and colleagues developed a model of working memory that brings together how the brain accepts sensory input, processes both visual-spatial and verbal data, and accesses long-term memory; and how all of that input is processed by a function they referred to as central executive.

Working Memory in the Brain

Central executive monitors and coordinates input and decides which information we will focus our attention on. As with other cognitive processes that power executive function, the home base of working memory is in the prefrontal cortex. Researchers have detected increased activation in this area at the front of the brain when people are involved in thinking and problem solving that engages working memory.

Other areas of the brain that support working memory are the hippocampus, which is involved in long-term memory storage and spatial orientation, and Broca's area, located on the left side of the frontal lobes and involved in language processing and verbal fluency.

Working memory is involved in a variety of learning and daily living tasks, such as reading, problem solving, and navigation. As such, it is sometimes referred to as the "brain's workhorse." In fact, Tracy and Ross Alloway, in their book The Working Memory: Train Your Brain to Function Stronger, Smarter, Faster, contend that working memory is a better predictor than IQ of how well students will perform academically: "IQ is what you know. Working memory is what you can do with what you know" (p. 16).

Thus, working memory is a key cognitive skill for students and their teachers. As an educator, you know well how you must to be able to maintain the mental skillfulness and agility to process many variables in everyday teaching practice, such as students' prior knowledge, the primary purpose and goal of a lesson, sequence of learning activities, time constraints, interruptions throughout the school day, and on and on.

Students activate their working memory as they figure out the meaning of new words they encounter while reading, and as they decide which mathematical functions they will need to apply to a problem that their teacher has just jotted on the whiteboard.

Workouts for Working Memory

The good news for teachers and students is that it is possible to improve our working memory. These strategies can help activate and, over time, enhance the central executive function of working memory:

Repeat after me.

Asking students to repeat what you have said or to paraphrase it in their own words is a simple way to both assess and increase their working memory. The acts of listening and speaking what they have heard focus their attention on the lesson content and activate several components of the working memory model.

Make a game of it.

Children and youth love to play games, and card games like Concentration, Crazy Eights, and Uno can help to build working memory. Better yet, design learning activities based on memory games to help reinforce key content.

Emphasize relevance.

Lead a class discussion on the importance of identifying and focusing on relevant data in learning. Life is full of irrelevant information and distractions. When researching a topic online, for example, it's easy to get sidetracked by entries that are interesting but not relevant to the task at hand. A key aspect of improving working memory is developing your ability to attend to what's important now.

Hone short-term recall through practice.

Provide plenty of learning activities that involve working with bits of information. Word problems in math require students to identify, remember, and process data.

Visualize it.

Learning to picture the components of a math reading problem (as just one example) in their minds is another strategy that engages and enhances multiple components of working memory. For a visualization strategy applied to reading comprehension, see our previous post on "brain movies".

Teach it to learn it.

The act of teaching also engages working memory. Through activities that involve peer teaching or learning in pairs and small groups, students can enhance learning by applying their working memory to the task of explaining and teaching new content to others.

Finally, as you teach students about working memory and how they can improve it, pair these lessons with explicit instruction on another cognitive skill -- attention. Attention helps us focus on information so that we can work with it in working memory.

How do you get your students to engage their working memory?

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Comments (23) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

H Bullock's picture

I am so excited to hear from you and to set off exploring your other posts and the comments they elicit. Having enjoyed graduate work under Dr. Sharon Dole at Western Carolina University in academically gifted education, I look forward to checking out more courses. Thank you for your post on my own blog, too. I had to approve it before it went through, but now my colleagues will be able to see your offerings as well. Many thanks, and best wishes!

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Wonderful! Let's keep in touch!

Mike Raven's picture
Mike Raven
Former Head of Department (Science), Teacher, Brisbane, Qld., Aust

Hi Donna,

Thank-you for this most informative article on Working Memory and Workouts. Brain science is an exciting and fast emerging area of educational research. So I was pleased to read your blog.

With your permission I would like to offer to those interested further reading on brain science (two of the links are my own work) :

1 ) For teachers just starting to learn about brain science ..

"Brain Science for Teachers"

2 ) More information on Working Memory ..

"Working Memory - the learning machinery"


3 ) A most excellent book by an expert on Educational Neuroscience ..

Geake, John G. The Brain at School Educational Neuroscience in the Classroom. Maidenhead, England: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press, 2009.

I hope these resources will be of interest.


malka's picture


Can you tell me how to cite this article? would this be considered scholarly?

margosmathandmore's picture

Your article was very informative and revealing....I enjoyed reading it. I would like to discuss this further with you, but before I get into it, I just want to be sure that I understand the working memory model you present in the article.
I made this illustration to enhance my own understanding of the model, based on what you said. It's very simple, but an "uncluttered representation" is all I need for now. Please let me know if my interpretation is correct. If I'm wrong, please enlighten me.

1.perception/ 2.encoding/ 3.practice/ 4.information
initial exposure/ processing making info is stored
sensory input

I have been SO interested in this aspect of learning for several years. (memory, working memory, cognitive load theory, rehearsal, retrieval, non-retrieval) I would be honored if you would take a peek at my website www.margosmathandmore.com. The website is the showcase for a program I created called the Color Coded Multiplication Program. It was developed to assist students struggling with executive function and cognitive overload while doing math. The program has many neurological underpinnings. Some of these include priming, cued recall, and using color for stimulating attention and focus.
I would really like to continue this correspondence...I have more questions about your article. Would you mind if I posted your article in my blog?
Thank You,
Margo Gentile

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Margo,

Thank you for your comments. We recommend Tracy and Ross Alloway's book, Working Memory: Train Your Brain to Function Stronger, Smarter, Faster, for those who want to know more about current research on working memory. The book has a lot of practical strategies too.

Your website is nice. I hope you have lots of users. You can repost our blog with credit to Marcus and me as authors and Edutopia.

Happy Pi Day!


Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Mike,

Thank you for your comment and sharing your website. I like the way you have organized reading sequence for those wanting more. You might also want to take a look at our book, Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice (Teachers College Press, 2013). This selection has been called a 'primer' for readers who want more brain-based teaching. We also have a recently published selection for those who want to know more about the early childhood years. It is entitled, Flourishing in the First Five Years: Connecting Implications from Mind, Brain, and Education Research to the Development of Young Children (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2013). Currently, we also have three texts in press or in development: Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being (Wiley, scheduled for publication in August 2015), Mind, Brain, and Teacher Leadership: Leveraging the POWER of Purposeful Collaboration (Teachers College Press, scheduled for publication in Fall 2015), and Innovating Minds: Keys to Learning and Teaching Creative Thinking Skills (Wiley, scheduled for publication in 2016).

Marcus and I too appreciate the work of John Geake. We have his book in our library and have referenced it on couple occasions.

We wish you well with your website!


JennaWeber's picture

I really enjoyed reading your post! It gave me a much better understanding of what working memory is and how to enhance it. There is a lot of talk about brain-based learning at the school I teach at. I have been doing a lot of research so that I have a better understanding of it. This was a great piece of knowledge that I can add to my "tool box!" I especially love how you included ways to exercise our working memory. I would love to hear about some more specific examples and strategies. Thank you so much!

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