Did you know that working memory is one of the elements underlying intelligence?
Improving memory is becoming an integral part of our lives as we come to understand how the brain works and how important it is to exercise our brain. As demands in our lives increase so does the demand on our working memory. The working memory is like your brain’s ‘Post It Note’.... it makes all the difference to successful learning. (Dumbach-Fuscohttp, 2014)
Working memory describes the ability to hold in the mind and mentally manipulate information over short periods of time. (Gathercole and Packiam Alloway, page 4) Working memory is often thought of as a mental workspace where we can use to store, retrieve and manipulate important information.
Several studies demonstrate a correlation between working memory, learning and attention.
Working memory is particularly relevant to gifted and talented students who need high level functioning skills and it is important to know the capacity of the child's working memory. Measuring the memory capacity of a child will help understand their learning ability.
To recognise how a child learns, organises and transfers information is an essential part of the teaching process. A child’s success in education and ultimately in their life, is in part dependent on developing memory skills that can be applied to various situations.
Memory capacity can be calculated with a digit span test. With the ability to remember four items in sequence we can to cope with formal learning activities such as remembering the sounds in a word to read or write it (c-a-t = cat), or the numbers in a sum (3 + 4 = 7) to work out the answer.
In 1956, George Miller, a Harvard psychologist, found that individuals are generally limited to remembering about seven (plus or minus two) things at a time when processing information. Our working memory provides a temporary hold for information that is not always stored away into long term memory. It allows us to keep information in our minds while using that information to complete a task.
Many things we process do not need to be stored in long term memory and are only relevant for the moment when we are reacting to them. Our working memory controls our ability to operate and is limited by the amount of information we can remember at one time. We only hold information in our short term memory for a few seconds and this can be even less if we are distracted. However there are strategies to improve working memory.
We can show children how to extend their working memory by teaching them to rehearse. By repeating things over and over again it helps us to remember. In addition, we can extend this ability by teaching students to chunk information. When we do this, we decrease the number of items we have to remember by increasing the size of each item. So, rather than remembering all the letters in the word "chocolate" we can chunk the syllables together and remember each part of the word. These methods are used by many ‘experts’ who exhibit amazing memories.
Another technique is to teach children to make associations with information stored in their long term memory. This is dependent on them having sufficient life experiences that they can discuss, store and link to new information. It is easier to remember things in context as we don't remember isolated facts as easily.
To use this technique, get a box of objects and ask the child to select a number (dependent on their digit span test) and create a story from the objects. Allow them the opportunity to link the items together through a story (association) and rehearse the story. Hide the objects and, without distracting or interrupting the child, ask them to repeat the story from memory. If they identify all items, repeat the following day with one more item and a different set of objects.
"some compensatory behaviours may be exhibited which makes identification of gifted students complex"
Eloise started receiving tutoring when she was placed in the learning support group at school. After showing ten year old Eloise how to improve her memory through some practise sessions, she was soon able to sequence 45 items. Imagine the power of that memory capacity and skill when she is cramming for a history exam. Eloise now focuses so well that she copes with distractions.
When a child has a high IQ, but is limited by their working memory or other disabilities, their IQ is compromised therefore performance and concentration can be below potential. Deficits in working memory, concentration or other disabilities may mask a child's giftedness and identification can be difficult. In addition, some compensatory behaviours may be exhibited which makes identification of gifted students complex. Sometimes these children become the class clown as they feel inadequate that they can't remember so they act accordingly.
Others may withdraw and refuse to actively participate as they know they can't remember what to do. Some children survive by copying others and don't learn for themselves or develop confidence in their own ability. Some children may create their own version of the learning activity and we quite often label them as creative. In reality they are completing the lesson in the only way they know how to, their own way.
Unfortunately, as teachers and parents, we sometimes see children who are so frustrated by their inability to remember that they behave poorly to the point where they are withdrawn from the activity and sometimes the group. The stress of not remembering, can also see children taking out their anger in the classroom, playground or on the ones that love them the most, their parents. As adults, we need to recognise these behaviours as messages that there is a problem and teach children how to make remembering easier.
From an early age we need to instil in our children the need to work the brain and develop the memory. A good working memory will allow better comprehension and retention of oral instructions and performance in a variety of learning activities. It is essential we know that our children are able to perceive information correctly and then remember and transfer it to the required activity. In this advanced world of technology, we need to assure that our children spend more time working their brains and memory, and not just their fingers and eyes. As Joshua Foer says in his book (Foer, 2011) "a great memory is the essence of expertise."
That is why working memory is a common component of many IQ tests.
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About the author
Julie Bradley has over 30 years experience in education. The resources in this article can be found on her website: www.smartachievers.net.au. Readers may also opt in to Julie's newsletters for regular updates and ideas.
Foer, J. 2011. Moonwalking with Einstein. London: Allen Lane.
Gathercole, S. and Packiam Alloway, T. Understanding Working Memory A Classroom Guide. London: Harcourt Assessment.
www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/executive-function-disorders/what-is-working-memory-why-does-matter 8 Apr 2014 Dumbach-Fuscohttp
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