Learning relies heavily on our short-term or working memory. Some pupils seem to struggle with carrying out and completing tasks, while other pupils seem to have very few problems. Among the different reasons for struggle, working memory issues are a contributing factor. Picture working memory as a mental ‘note pad’ in which we hold a certain amount of information. If distractions occur, or the task is complex, then the information can be easily lost. Once lost, it cannot be regained, like information in a computer’s RAM memory chip.
In their working memory classroom guide, Gathercole and Alloway (2007) found that each individual differs in their working memory capacity, such that in a class of 30 seven to eight year olds, there will be pupils whose working memory capacity ranges from that of a four year old up to an eleven year old. While working memory increases with age, they state that children with poor working memory capacities lag behind their peers as they get older.
We can observe the following behaviours in pupils who may have working memory issues when they:
- Forget some or all of the words in a sentence or a sequence.
- Are unable to follow instructions, or can only remember part of the sequence or content.
- Repeat and/or skip letters and words while writing a sentence or by omitting a large part of a task.
- Give up on the task completely.
These are signs that the pupil’s memory may be overloaded. Working memory issues can occur in pupils with specific learning difficulties, acquired brain injury and autism, although not all pupils with special needs will have working memory problems. Whether or not pupils have working memory issues, the following strategies can help all pupils.
Check the pupils’ understanding as they work through tasks to see if they have forgotten essential information and by asking them what they intend to do next.
Think about the task components and the verbal instructions in a learning activity being planned. See where the task can be broken into short sections. The steps in these sections could be typed up in bullet lists on a prompt sheet and provided for all pupils. Use fewer words and one or two pieces of information in a verbal instruction. The pupil could use a marker or reading ruler to underline the task they are currently on in the list. Encourage all pupils in the class to request information if they need it repeating.
Having memory aids to hand, such as cue cards for spellings of key words, digital audio recording device for recording an idea, number lines and teacher notes come under this strategy.
Finally, we need to understand that processing information increases the load on working memory. Writing a sequence of numbers on the board and asking pupils to say which numbers have been omitted will cause working memory failure unless the task is redesigned. Supporting pupils with these strategies helps them achieve and complete their learning tasks as well as avoiding pupils developing poor self-esteem and frustration.
Alastair Fielden is connect’s Education Consultant with over 20 years experience in SEND Education and assistive technologies.