I am indebted to Tracy Packiam Alloway for her work on memory and learning. I have summarised here some of her findings. Forgive me if I’ve written these before!
Working memory is the term used by psychologists to refer to the ability we have to hold and manipulate information in the mind over relatively short periods of time. It provides a mental workspace or jotter that is used to store important information in the course of our everyday lives. Working memory is limited in capacity and this capacity varies between individuals and is affected by characteristics of the material that is being stored.

We usually experience mental activities that place significant demands on working memory as a kind of mental juggling in which we try to keep all elements of a task going at the same time. Often, the juggling will fail either because the capacity of our working memory is exceeded, or because we become distracted and the task in hand is displaced by other information.

Working memory is distinguishable from short term memory because it involves manipulating information mentally and holding it in one’s head for a time. Recalling a phone number in order to make an immediate call is a good example of an activity that depends on short term memory. Working memory is a term for more complex tasks, such as following lengthy directions about how to reach a location.

The expression ‘long term memory’ has four components: episodic, autobiographical, semantic and procedural.

  • Episodic memory is about details particular experiences such as what we had for breakfast.
  • Autobiographical details from away back also form part of our long term memory;
  • and semantic knowledge is, for example, knowing that Paris is the capital of France.
  • Procedural memory lasts a life time, once a skill is established, for any information that can be used automatically such as ‘knowing’ how to drive.

Working memory increases from childhood through to adolescence when adult levels are reached, in most people.  Increases in working memory capacity with age relate to improvements in the efficiency of processing and of attention. It is related to, but distinct from, intelligence. Because it is independent of factors relating to the child’s background and learning opportunities it provides a comparatively pure measure of learning ability.

Thus children with learning difficulties in reading and maths typically have poor working memory capacities, and their memory scores predict the severity of their learning problems. Poor working memory does not appear to be due to more general factors such as language difficulties or general cognitive delay. The poor rates of learning in children with low working memory capacities are due in large part to memory overload in structured learning activities which causes them to forget crucial information and so to fail in these tasks.

Memory overload leads to difficulties following instructions, in completing tasks that combine storage and demanding mental processing, and problems in keeping track of their progress in complex tasks. These frequent task failures impair learning in key academic domains – not least because they have enormous impact on the child’s sense of self efficacy.

Many children with poor working memory appear to be inattentive and highly distractible.

Interventions are possible. Teachers need to:

  • be aware of the warning signs of working memory failure,
  • monitor the child, 
  • evaluate working memory load if the warning signs are detected,
  • reduce the working memory load if necessary,
  • repeat important information, use memory aids
  • encourage the child to use strategies for supporting working memory.

 Teachers who are particularly effective at implementing the intervention approach combine a number of principles and strategies in a single activity to provide a strong network of working memory support.