Working memory in the classroom

Four ways to help children learn

What is working memory?

Working memory is ‘in the moment’ thinking that enables us to make decisions, keep track of conversations, and solve problems.

Did you know that children with poor working memory are often less successful at school? There is a limit on the amount of information that can be held in working memory at any one time. It’s why kids might drop a couple of items when given a list of things to remember.

This limit can create a bottleneck on learning, but there are tactics you can use based on scientific insights into working memory to support children’s learning.

Illustration by Gabi Froden/PositiveNegatives for BOLD
  1. Explicitly link new information to existing learning
    If you connect new information to children’s existing ideas and concepts, it’s easier for them to process.
  2. Reduce the complexity of new information
    Adults can hold around four pieces of information in mind at a time, and children generally less. Breaking down the complexity of new concepts so that the amount of information is reduced can help children retain the core information. 
  3. Use visuals alongside verbal explanations and written text
    Working memory is thought to process verbal information and visuals separately. Combining these formats, and using reference materials such as diagrams, objects and actions, can help children learn. 
  4. Allow time to process new information
    When children learn, switching attention between working memory and processing the new information is challenging, so information can be lost if the demand on their attention is too great. Providing extra ‘thinking time’ can help.

Read the science behind these strategies and more tips in the full article by Elisabeth Knight and Alicia Forsberg.

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