Helping all children become happy learners
Weak Working Memory Strategies
Weak working memory affects a significant proportion of students in any cohort. It limits their ability to retain and follow instructions and leads to under performance in their academic studies. See working memory article for more information
Managing when 'things to be remembered' are given.
The diagram above shows how as we increase demands on our capacity to process things we reduce our capacity to hold on to short-term memories held within the whole of our working memory system. Even quite modest and mundane tasks such as fetching a book required for a lesson can significantly impact on the capacity of the child to remember information and instructions given just before. Short-term memories only last a few seconds without brain effort to prevent fading. When our attention is engaged in other tasks we have quickly forget and these memories can not be retrieved no matter how hard we try. The key is therefore to give instructions at the time when students are able and ready to act on them.
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 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
It is essential to explicitly teach and model the use of active remembering strategies. It should never be assumed that students know to use them or will remember to use them. Regular encouragement of the following is therefore useful:
Mnemonics can be a highly affective way of remembering longer chains of meaning. They need to be taught, practiced until they can be easily recalled from long term memory. Once learnt these reduce the load on working memory. E.g. CATS Capitals At The Start; CRISP Class Reading In Silence Please and Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants (because)
Everyone can benefit from writing down things they need to remember in simple lists or informal jottings. However, students often need considerable encouragement to do this as it is often seen as an additional task rather than a useful strategy. Modelling by staff can help. An alternative, useful for very young children and non-writers is to use symbols, drawings and other marks to represent something to be remembered.
Word webs help to create links in a non linear way that makes greater use of the visual sketchpad component in working memory. This is useful for all students but can be particularly useful where the working memory weakness lies in the phonological loop component.
Teach children to rehearse items in their heads (or out loud). We often assume that strategies like this are common sense or innate but they need to be explicitly taught as part of developing metacognition.
Using fingers to anchor things to be remembered. This strategy helps us to remember the number of 'things' to remember which in turn anchors the 'things'. I need to remember 4 things...
Using visualisation to remember lists by imagining them in different places. This is a very powerful technique that is frequently used by memory 'geniuses' (genii) to anchor lots of information.
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 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:
hear, see and do
use concrete examples to support explanations such as artefacts, pictures and video
use practical apparatus to anchor maths and science concepts etc.
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.
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 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.
Strategies to support children with weak working memory
Ten Things to Do to Support Working Memory