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.
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.
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.