Working Memory and Learning Needs

As a psychologist, I have spent over a decade investigating how Working Memory is crucial to learning. Throughout this journey, I have the privilege of working closely with educators and parents and I am grateful to those who have contacted me and taken me beyond the world of theory and data to see the classroom from their perspective. Here are excerpts from some recent emails:

I have an 8-year-old son who has been struggling with school since he was 5. I've taken him to several psychologists, psychiatrists, and even pediatric neurologists and I have not gotten a clear diagnosis other than ADHD. What I noticed is that my son has an issue with his working memory. All of the research I did points to this being his major problem.

Samantha is 12 and has been assessed as having difficulties with her working memory. The school has identified this [and] I am keen to see if I can find ways to help my daughter.

Now more than ever, it is crucial to accurately assess Working Memory. The incidence of learning disorders is increasing and there is growing awareness of how Working Memory deficits feature in a number of learning difficulties. Working memory has also been described as a ‘controller’, a cognitive resource that can keep a goal in mind, bring in cognitive resources from different parts of the brain, and also manage incoming information.

Each of the learning needs listed in the Figure have very different areas of difficulty. For example, students with dyslexia are characterized by their trouble reading, those with dyscalculia find an assortment of math problems tricky, students with dyspraxia have motor impairments, those with ADHD display troublesome behavior, and students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder have limited social skills. Given their distinctive profile, what do these groups have in common? All of them have a weakness in working memory. That is not to say that poor working memory causes the core deficit in their respective disorder. However, it coexists as a separate problem and ultimately leads to learning difficulties. For example, a deficit in working memory does not cause motor problems, however in my own published research I found that working memory weaknesses in a student with dyspraxia leads to learning difficulties, regardless of their IQ.

Research to date indicates that teachers’ awareness of working memory deficits in the classroom can still be quite low. In a recent study, the majority of teachers interviewed only picked up early warning signs of working memory failure in their students 25 percent of the time, often thinking that the students were unmotivated or daydreaming instead.

So how can an educator accurately diagnosis a potential Working Memory problem in a student? Stemming from my research findings, I have published the Automated Working Memory Assessment, a computer-based assessment of working memory that has automatised test administration and presents results in a form that is easy to interpret by non-experts. The AWMA provides measures each of verbal and visuo-spatial short-term memory and working memory and currently, it is the only standardised assessment of working memory available for teachers to use. Not only does the AWMA eliminate the need for prior training in test administration, it also provides a practical and convenient way for educators to screen students for significant working memory problems. It is standardised for use from childhood (five years) to adulthood (80 years) in a revised version (due end-2012).

Once the specific strengths and weaknesses of a student’s working memory profile are known, specific and targeted accommodations can be made to support learning. The aim in supporting students with learning difficulties is not just to help them survive in the classroom, but to thrive as well. Strategies can provide scaffolding and support that will unlock their working memory potential to boost learning.

Recently, there has been an explosion of research investigating the potential benefits of training Working Memory. In a recent study of students with learning difficulties, a computerized working memory training programme ( was found to significantly improve verbal and visual-spatial working memory, IQ scores, as well as language scores as measured by standardized assessments.

When working with schools, I have seen how supporting their Working Memory can make a significant difference to their learning and ultimately their academic success. The interested reader is welcome to look at the resources listed below for further information on Working Memory and learning.

Further Reading and Resources

 STRATEGIES: Improving Working Memory: Supporting Students’ Learning, published by Sage Pub.

TEST: Automated Working Memory Assessment, published by Pearson Assessment

TRAINING: Jungle Memory

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