One area that invariably baffles our parents is that of Working Memory. Often confused with short-term memory, working memory is not just about not forgetting to put the recycling out before going to school, but rather refers to the "ability to keep information in mind and work with this information" in some immediate task or problem-solving situation. All of us have only a limited capacity for working memory and can only retain a finite amount of information for a short period of time (literally seconds) before it decays. A simple example would be the ability to look up a phone number and then dialling it while you still retain the digits in your mind. For most of us, (thank goodness for redial!), if we didn't connect and then waited 15 minutes to try again, we would have to look the number up a second time. The fleeting nature of working memory, in general, is intended for us to retain or retrieve data just long enough to complete a necessary task.
Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for keeping information online, manipulating it, and using it in your thinking. It is the way that you delegate the things you encounter to the parts of your brain that can take action. In this way, working memory is necessary for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping you updated and aware about what’s going on around you.
Working memory has a huge impact on reasoning ability, self-regulation, attention and focus. Consequently it has an impact of the success of all students with respect to academic skill applications particularly in reading and mathematics. Research has shown that a measurement of working memory capacity can be a fairly reliable predictor of academic success in future years.
So, if working memory is a challenge for some students, what can be done to support them in developing strategies to work around it? Common strategies used in working memory training include repetition of the tasks, and the gradual adjustment of the task difficulty and complexity with each stage of mastery. Often, classroom teachers and tutors will use techniques such as front loading, rehearsal of material, chunking, scaffolding, pairing mental images with the material, mnemonics, and other meta-cognitive strategies. Unlike working memory training, the concrete techniques taught to students are learned strategies that kids can deliberately apply to a given situation.
At KGMS, we also help students develop their working memory through the use of Cogmed Working Memory training. Students, for whom this has been identified as a potential intervention, complete a six week training course online, monitored by their tutor. The results are then analyzed by our SLP and shared with parents. There is a follow-up six months after the training to determine the level of retention of the improvements noted in working memory. A 2015 study on the impact of direct working memory training showed both definite improvement, and retention of working memory capacity which correlated with statistically significant increased performance in learning outcomes, particularly in reading and math, more than two years after the training.
Improving working memory, like improving reading and math performance, is part of the process of helping students to develop new pathways to success. It is always a work in progress!