George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

The Role of Working Memory in the Writing Process

High school teachers can guide students to success in writing assignments by structuring tasks to account for working memory.

May 17, 2022
High school student writing in class room.
FatCamera / iStock

In high school, reflection essays, analysis papers, and literature reviews for English and other courses supplement more traditional summaries and narratives. Regardless of the focus, we’re familiar with the complicated writing process, which requires brainstorming, organizing, and translating ideas into words while using correct mechanics (punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, etc.). At the same time, writing a coherent and well-developed piece requires valuable working memory. Unfortunately, subtle working memory issues may increase these complex writing challenges.

Writing demands working memory capacity, retention time, and processing depth. For example, gaps in remembering and understanding information slow the process of manipulating and translating information. As a result, students may prematurely discard information they need. How can we engage students in maximizing their working memory functioning throughout the writing process?

Consider the following strategies: increasing capacity through note-taking, deepening processing with discussion and summarization, and extending retention time with review and revisions.

Setting Up a Writing Task to Account for Working Memory

Analyzing the writing task: Analyzing the assignment and identifying discrete steps creates a structure in working memory, easing the mental organization process. While doing this with your class, ask students for examples of relevant information. For example, if they are analyzing the Napoleonic Era, ask them to provide two decisions Napoleon made that led to his defeat. Examples provide students with brain priming and enable you to assess retention and comprehension. In this way, task analysis serves as a confirmation of students’ understanding of directions and their content knowledge.

Consider the following strategies: intermittent low-stakes testing to support remembering and understanding, student-generated teach-backs for knowledge review and rehearsal, student partnerships for reading directions, and use of step-by-step checklists.

Prewriting: Now that students have created a mental organization framework, they can begin writing. A structured approach is essential when considering the extensive working memory demands. For example, creating an organizer provides a review of information, thus increasing the depth of working memory processing. This way, information is more efficiently organized for easy long-term memory storage. Thus, rather than taxing working memory capacity, information can be accessed more easily from long-term memory as needed.

Start by activating prior knowledge with a 5- to 10-minute brainstorm. Then create an overall structure of subtopics, main ideas, and their logical connections, using outlines, mind maps, graphic organizers, or note cards.

Leave time between creating the organizer and revising it to allow for mental organization of the information and increased objectivity. During the revision, have students use notes to identify possible gaps. Be sure to recognize the need for processing time to facilitate decision-making. Avoid fatigue by establishing a work session of an hour at most, such as 45 minutes of focused work, a 5-minute break for processing, and a 10-minute review.

Planning: Executive functions such as attention, inhibition, and emotional regulation impact working memory functioning. Therefore, planning is a proactive step that can help students overcome future obstacles. Partner students to expand the writing process checklist they created during task analysis.

For example, have students enter work session appointments with alerts into a digital calendar. Have them enter interim due dates with a specific action step for receiving feedback. Finally, a growth step would be to include step-specific time estimates to encourage the development of accurate planning.

Translating ideas into words: Translating ideas into words requires self-regulation. Decisions regarding word choice, spelling, and grammar require persistence. Therefore, avoiding internal distractions impacts working memory’s ability to manipulate and organize information.

Have students consider the following strategies:

  • Cover everything in the organizer except the section guiding their current writing.
  • Lessen cognitive and physical demands with speech-to-text.
  • Write without editing by turning off spell or grammar check features.
  • Establish a cueing system to mark words or areas of uncertainty. Try highlighting or italicizing word choice to review, or adding a question mark to indicate uncertainty of ideas.

Editing: Allow at least an hour between writing and editing to let students focus on their actual wording versus what they think they wrote. Time also offsets the emotional attachment to their words. Finally, lessen the chances of students feeling overwhelmed by limiting editing to one or two specific areas. Their editing checklist might focus on writing mechanics, specialized vocabulary, or places they flagged as unclear during writing. Either partner students or consider using text-to-speech to ensure accurate reading of their draft.

Reflecting: Reflection provides a review of the student’s writing process. Emphasizing their goals and gains moves them from working memory to long-term memory.

To reinforce growth, ask students to identify a gain. Then establish a goal by focusing on a feedback suggestion. For example, perhaps they struggled to hold information in their working memory while writing an English essay. Ask them to identify a strategy, technology, or resource that would support their ability to decide what information to include in a future organizer.

When working memory is functioning effectively and efficiently, the complex demands of writing become steps in a workable process rather than obstacles of frustration.

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  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Literacy
  • 9-12 High School

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