With the long summer days coming to an end, parents and children are starting to prepare for school. As you get ready with new backpacks, notebooks, and other important school supplies, don’t forget the most important learning tool—Working Memory.

Working Memory is our ability to work with information. We like to think of working memory as the brain’s Conductor. The conductor brings all the different instruments of an orchestra under control and makes it possible to play beautiful music. Without the conductor, the piccolo might tweet before the violin section, or the timpani (those large drums at the back) might start thundering away when the piano was supposed to begin. Just like the music conductor brings order to chaos, the working memory conductor brings order to the oceans of information we are faced with daily.

Your working memory Conductor has two main functions:

•    It prioritizes and processes a limited amount of information.

•    It keeps the information as long as you need to work with it.

Children must constantly use their working memory in the classroom.

  • To inhibit distracting information, like their schoolmates whispering near them or the bright pink of the backpack in front of them. It also helps them to keep track of where they are in a multistep task.
  • To work with the information—the numbers, letters, or words they need to think about to complete an assignment.
  • To hold the information for a limited amount of time, as well as helping them complete the tasks as quickly as possible.

Psychologists tested the role of Working Memory in classroom activities. They recruited kindergarteners and gave them a standardized Working Memory test in order to identify those with low working memory (standard scores <85) and those with average working memory (standard scores between 95-105).  

Then they gave them a series of activities like counting the numbers of words in a short sentence (example: Jim likes to play with toy trains), repeating the sentence, and picking out rhymes in a poem. They choose these activities as they reflected the types of tasks that young children would typically be asked to accomplish in a classroom.

The psychologists found that the students with low Working Memory found it difficult to count the number of words in the sentence, repeat the sentence accurately, and pick out the rhyming words. In fact, they performed much worse than their peers with average Working Memory scores, even when they were matched on a nonverbal IQ test (on sentence recall and rhyme detection).

In a different study, the psychologists gave a different group of kindergarteners a set of instructions to follow, like Pick up the blue ruler, and put it in the red box. Working Memory played an important role in how well the children could carry out those simple instructions. The children had to use their Working Memory first to remember the instruction, and then work with it in order to carry out each step.

In the classroom, Working Memory has to work even harder as there are multiple pieces of information students have to work with. They have to copy information from the board, inhibit the desire to pet the cute class hamster, ignore the whispers and giggles all around them, follow complex spoken instructions from new teacher, resist the temptation to turn their worksheet into a paper airplane, and of course, learn how to read, write, and do arithmetic. Working memory makes is possible for them to cope with all this incoming information.

This was co-written with  Ross Alloway, PhD.

Tracy and Ross are authors of THE WORKING MEMORY ADVANTAGE and THE NEW IQ (UK version)

About the Author

Tracy P Alloway Ph.D.

Tracy Packiam Alloway, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at the University of North Florida. Formerly, she was director of the Center for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan, U.K.  

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