Five Minute Guides to Working Memory

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Five Minute Guides

What is memory?

Everything we can recall has been stored in our memory system. Our memory systems can be divided into three sub-systems based on how long they hold information for: short-term, long-term and episodic or medium-term.

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What is short term memory?

Our short-term memory allows us to store information in our heads for a few seconds. It allows us, for example, to remember a short number that we can then write down; a line or two of text from a book we are reading or the instructions we are asked to follow. Short-term memory capacity is very limited and can hold only a little bit of information. It can be compared to a bookshelf that can hold about 7 books. When you add another book to the shelf one or more of the books on it will fall off. Something that is forgotten from short-term memory is lost permanently. Children have a much smaller short-term memory capacity than adults and so easily forget things. Short-term memory reaches maturity at about 14 years of age.

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What is long term memory?

This is the information stored permanently in our brains. It includes language-based memories like knowing the words we speak and our factual knowledge as well as non-language based recollection of places we have visited and people we have seen or foods we have tasted. It also includes the skills we have learnt like being able to tie a lace or ride a bike.

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What is episodic memory?

This is a memory system that helps to plug the gap between our short and long-term memory. It stores a chronological record of our everyday experiences and plays a part in the transference of learning to our long-term memory. Memories stored here can be recalled for up to about 36 hours.

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What is working memory?

Working memory is our ability to hold on to and manipulate information so that we can do things with it. This information could be any input from any our senses but we tend to think of it in terms of seeing and hearing things. It involves our ability to think and process information held in any of our memory systems. Working memory capacity is particularly limited by our short-term memory as this stores both the things we want to think about and the products of our thinking. For example, in order to multiply 7 x 8 we need to store three different bit of information before we make the calculation and then have the answer 56 to hold on to as well. For those of us who have learnt our multiplication facts we will have got the answer from our long-term memory and this is relatively easy. For children who have not learnt these facts; they will have to do more thinking and need to store more bits in their memory e.g. counting up 8,16,24,32,40,48,56.

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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.

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How does weak working memory affect learning?

Children with weak working memory will find learning harder than their peers. For example, they may:

Struggle to follow instructions
Make frequent mistakes
Find writing tasks particularly difficult
Forget what they were going to say
Reading comprehension difficulties
Lose their place in tasks
Require more adult prompts
Make slow academic progress
Have poor language skills

Children will vary in their profile of difficulties depending on the specific nature of their working memory weaknesses.

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What else is associated with weak working memory?

Working memory difficulties are correlated with a number of common childhood conditions including:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Specific Language Impairment

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Working Memory

Five Minute Guide to Working Memory

A handy printable version of this five minute guide suitable for handing to parents, school staff and other professionals and carers. Use 2-sided printing (set printer to flip on short side) and fold in half to produce A5 leaflet.

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Got more than five minutes?

You may be interested to read more:

Memory and Learning

Weak Working Memory Strategies

working Memory

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