At its simplest, working memory can be described as our capacity to process 'things' in our head. These 'things' are the bits of information from our sensory sytems and the products of our thinking. There is a limit to the amount of 'things' we can hold on to at any one time and that is the limit of our working memory or capacity. Because we are continually bombarded by more 'things' than we can handle, working memory also involves decision making processes that select the most important 'things' for us to focus on and pay attention to. This means that our attention and concentration are directly linked with working memory.
How do you measure working memory capacity?
Working memory is complicated by the fact there are different systems for visual and verbal items. Many tests measure verbal items and a simple and limited test (resource below) is to see and/or hear several numbers in a sequence and be able to recall this in reverse order a few seconds later. Other tests may measure how much visual information can be processed. Sometimes an aggregate score is given combining verbal and visual sub-tests. Confusion can arrive as different tests may measure different aspects of working memory and consequently give varying results for the same individual. Results should perhaps therefore always be considered indicative of the individual capacity.
What is weak working memory?
Working memory capacity develops throughout childhood and reaches maximum at about 14 years of age. Like other human variables, such as height, individuals vary in their working memory capacity: some children will be taller or shorter than their peers whilst some children will have bigger or smaller working memory capacities. This means that some children will have normally developing working memory but it will be weaker than their peers making learning a lot harder for them.
Working memory requires a number of different thinking and storage processes all operating together. A problem with one or more of these processes can lead to weak working memory. Different processes are involved in remembering and processing different types of information so an individual can be weak in one area and normal or better in another area.
How do recognise children with weak working memory?
When a child has weak working memory capacity compared to the average of their class then they are likely to experience difficulties with following instructions and understanding explanations leading to poor academic progress. Teachers often observe the following characteristics in their students learning behaviour:
They often fail to follow instructions
They make frequent errors in their working out
They often get the sequence of multi-step tasks in wrong order
They find writing tasks particularly difficult
They may often forget what they were going to say
Some have reading comprehension difficulties
Frequently lose their place in tasks
Will need more adult prompts than their peers
More easily distracted