Happy Learners - Weak Working Memory Strategies

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Strategies to support students with weak working memory

Please also see the articles on memory and learning; short-term memory and working memory.

Working Memory - Processing Demands Vs Amount Remembered

Keep explanations and instructions simple and short

Try to avoid overloading the students with too much information or too many instructions.

Summarise key points

Particularly when giving information orally ensure frequent opportunities to remind and reinforce the most important facts or instructions that they need.

Give instructions one at a time

Students with weak working memory are more likely to succeed if they are given the opportunity to complete an instruction before the next is given.

Use task boards to break down instructions in to easy to process stages

Task boards are the most effective way of developing independence in children with weak working memory. Students can then readily access the instructions or demands required in the task without needing to seek help. Task boards are also highly effective in reducing low level distracting and disruptive behaviours.

Avoid interrupting students during complex steps

Though it is important at times to interrupt a class performing a task in order to reinforce learning points and instructions you need to be aware of the impact of doing so. Students with weak working memory are more likely to forget where they are in the task leading to errors and confusion. Try to provide additional scaffolding to these students following an interruption.

Ask students how they were successful in completing tasks

Developing metacognition in students from the earliest age benefits all. For students with weak working memory this is particularly important as they have to develop strategies that allow them to overcome the limitations of their working memory. What helped? E.g. jotting down notes; using the task board and looking back at the example etc.

Actively teach and practice memory rehearsal strategies

Create stories to help students remember

A story has a chronological order of events and our capacity to recall stories is generally better than other types of information we try to remember. The component of working memory called the episodic buffer is responsible for time and order and links to all the other areas of working memory. This means that we can enhance our abiliity to remember by creating a logical sequence of events. A story achieves this and enables us to anchor useful things like lists and new vocabulary etc. by using them within the plot.

Use songs and rhyming poems

Songs and poems often have a rhyming pattern that aids prediction of line endings. They also tend to be more fun and the performance aspect particularly where there are accompanying movements make them more memorable. Songs are often used widely in early primary years but should be used more extensively across the age ranges.

Repeat new vocabulary frequently

When you recall a word from long term memory it places relatively little demands on your working memory. However, when you are working with a new word you are having to process lots of information about it: shape, sound, spelling, meaning, use etc which places big demands on working memory. Now place the new word in a complex sentence as part of a new topic being explained and you quickly exceed capacity leading to failure to understand. Opportunities to pre-teach new vocabulary and repeatedly reinforce their meaning and use can reduce their working memory load.

Use multi-sensory approaches

There is good evidence that learning that is given in a multi-sensory way is more likely to be remembered. Provide opportunities to:

Use writing frames

It can often be difficult as teachers to understand the difficulty that writing causes for so many students. What should be 'common sense' often is elusive in the results produced. However, writing is probably the most working memory taxing tast that students are asked to do. There is multitude of things that need to come together such as what to write, how to write it, where to write it and each one of these is a summary of the decisions that need to be made using working memory. Reducing the working memory load is important for all students. Simple writing frames can provide layout structure that supports and reinforces expectations about setting out work. More complex writing frames can support students by 'guiding' through different stages of the task.

Tell students the number of things they need to remember

By simply adding 'you have X 'things' you need to remember...' to the beginning of instructions and explanation helps to prime students to concentrate and then focus on active rehearsal of these 'things'. Try to keep the number of 'things' as few as possible.

Build in regular short movement breaks

A quick movement break can help students clear their heads, stretch their bodies and be more able to focus and concentrate for the next task. They can also be very useful to demark steps in a task and enable students working memories to be ready for the next explanation or instruction.