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Working Memory: Time for a Research Update

“Could you remind me, what did you just say?

Part 1: Research

Have you ever been in one room of the house and started walking towards another room with a goal in mind… Usually, you’re thinking of a task such as, “Ive got to get that file or book from the bedroom.” Halfway to the other room, you forget what you were going to get! Then you have to go back to the original room to remind yourself!

All teachers have heard of our working memory or short-term memory. By the way, even researchers act confused when I ask for the difference. The best I can get is this: working memory refers to the “cognitive load” (or the amount of “stuff”) that your brain is holding in your brain while you do a task. But short-term memory refers to the time element of that cognitive load. Usually, short-term memory is from 5-20″. If we do not process that content, it often vaporizes. But, does it necessarily have to disappear? The answer is no.

Among the many amazing things about our brain is its plasticity. This refers to the capacity to change through neural reorganization. Memory (working OR short-term) can be enhanced through several strategies. Why would you care? There are many reasons: kids follow directions better they solve problems better, make better decisions and score higher on achievement tests. But generally, class is more fun to teach. Besides, you can enhance working memory for very little effort. I’ll bet you’d like to know how…

The OLD school of thinking, based on George Miller’s classic 1956 study suggested we can hold 7 _/+ 2 items in our head. That’s out of date and you want to be up to date, right? The new research suggests 2-4 (at the most) for chunks in our working memory (Cowan, et al.). If you are not currently strengthening the working memory of your students, don’t complain about it. No one else is going to do this, so it’s your choice: improve it, or you lose the right to complain about kids not having it.

Working memory can be enhanced two ways. Strengthening neural networks (through practice) and strengthening the efficacy of the “real-time” holding capacity with chemicals are your only two choices. The neural networks get strengthened through practice. That means the use of games and activities that build this skill. As an example, if you want to get good at playing cards, a strong working memory is a must. But, how about if we set aside gambling for a moment? There are better choices we’ll get to later. Read more