The Importance Of Working Memory In the Classroom: How To Develop Working Memory

Memory is a powerful cognitive tool which allows us to embed, store and recover information when it is required. For pupils, memory is an essential tool for internalising the knowledge and skills taught in the classroom. 

In recent years, education methodology has moved away from learning by rote and memorising of processes, facts and formulas. Education now has an emphasis on reasoning and problem-solving; but memory is still crucial for learners.

The process of education activates various aspects of cognition, such as working memory. Working memory retains and utilises information collected in the short-term memory. It takes hold of new information so the brain can use it and make connections with other information. It has been found that working memory is activated and utilised when activities such as reasoning and problem-solving are taking place. During education and daily life, working memory is utilised frequently in tasks such as reading and navigating. 

Although this article is primarily dedicated to pupil memory, teachers are also actively engaging their working memory in their day-to-day teaching responsibilities. Teaching comes with an array of duties and expectations. There is a great deal of information to process each day such as determining learning objectives and lesson goals, organising and adhering to timetabled activities, effectively managing and prioritising time and workload, adapting to changes in your schedule, understanding each individual student’s needs and so much more. Teachers, your working memory receives a rigorous work-out everyday!

For pupils, it is important to regularly engage the working memory in and out of the classroom. Working memory is required in the majority of exercises in school, such as being able to read and define unfamiliar words, making sense of word problems in various subjects and unpicking questions involving multiple steps. Regular activities dedicated to developing working memory allow children to take onboard new information, learning processes and expectations more effectively in the classroom. 

Ways to Improve Working Memory 

Matching Games: The visual nature of matching games and the ability to identify similarities and differences between objects is a great way to introduce problem solving. Matching games develop key skills such as identifying patterns, spotting correlations and recognising differences. Problem solving activities engage working memory. Retailers have a variety of matching games available to buy but you can easily make matching game resources yourselves! Pinterest has an array of matching games to inspire you that can be found with a simple search! 

Sequencing: This is another type of activity that helps to develop working memory. Sequencing can take many forms; although it appears frequently in mathematical questions, sequencing can be applied across many subjects! Sequencing is being able to arrange things in a set order. This could be anything from numbers, letters, information and tasks. The activity itself draws upon other key skills such as organisation, planning and independent thought. The ability to sequence is a fantastic foundation for other activities such as those involving identifying patterns, logical thought, comprehension and retelling events/stories. Activities involving sequences can range from putting numbers in the correct order on a number line, using pictorial representations and putting them in the correct order and piecing a story back together segment by segment. 

Unscramble Games: Leading on from sequencing, unscrambling games require an understanding of sequencing as well as the ability to problem solve. Unscramble games include moving letters around to reveal a hidden word and even whole sentences. 

Card Games, e.g. Uno: Card games are a highly visual and fun activity packed full of benefits for developing working memory. To be able to play a card game, children need to follow and understand a set of instructions; this involves internalising the rules and remembering them. As well as adhering to the instructions, they need to be mindful of other players; they are required be tactical, remember cards they have played and try to pre-empt their next move. 

Make it visual: Visual cues and stimuli are key to developing working memory. With visuals, we are able to see the image in our minds for a short time. In this short time, our brain transfers the information to working memory. Therefore, visual resources are extremely helpful for helping children to internalise methods and information.

Recaps and lesson overviews: At the beginning of each lesson, recap previous lessons with the children and explain the learning objective. A learning objective tells the pupils what they should be able to do by the end of the lesson. A success criteria is also helpful as it includes steps to achieving the learning objective. Verbally refreshing knowledge and explaining the purpose of the lesson helps to engage working memory.

Chunking information: Break large pieces of information down into sections. This makes it more digestible. This could be done by working through a text extract as a class and encouraging children to underline and highlight specific pieces of texts, all whilst pausing after each paragraph and recapping to allow the brain to process the information. 

Planning sheets: It is useful for children to make a plan for their work before beginning a task. Planning sheets allow children to make a note of objectives and the things they should be doing to achieve them. They can note down their ideas and a brief summary of what they are going to do. The children can then refer back to the planning sheet when they begin the task to jog their working memory and increasing the probability of retaining useful information. 

Word banks, e.g. sentence starters, adjectives, verbs, conjunctions: Word banks are fantastic for reminding children of new vocabulary and knowledge they have been taught in class. Word banks are a visual cue and engage the working memory as well as aiding organisation and foresight.

Number lines and multiplication squares: Similarly to word banks, resources such as number lines and multiplication squares are a visual cue to support children in their learning. Such resources make it easier for children to complete tasks and solve problems. By removing the element of remembering a times table fact, for example, you are freeing up space in their minds to complete the problem at hand.

Key vocabulary introductions: When introducing new vocabulary, go through the definitions with your pupils. This can be done in a variety of ways from using a thesaurus to define words on a vocabulary list or working as a whole class. It is important to contextualise new vocabulary, using it in a sentence to model the correct use and then allowing the children to use it in context as well. You can also make notes of key vocabulary on working walls and integrate vocabulary games into the classroom; the more engaging the better it is for working memory.

Utilise the senses: The senses are key to activating working memory. Use a range of methods which utilise all the senses for an immersive and memorable learning experience.

Plenaries, e.g. refresh, repeat, recap, check in: Use plenaries to regularly check in with the class whilst they are working. Ask them to remind each other of the learning objective and success criteria. Ask children to read some of their work aloud or encourage children who are feeling a little stuck to ask their class mates for advice. Plenaries ensure pupils are kept on task and that the knowledge is internalised. 

Partner talk: Encourage discussion between pupils to bounce ideas off one another. Talking is a great way to make a learning experience memorable.

Allow processing time (typically 10 seconds) and encourage children to repeat key ideas and objectives back to you to check their understanding. Moreover, repeating things aloud helps information to stick.

If you enjoyed this article then our blog ‘Improving Fluency in Maths in a Post Lockdown Primary Classroom’ is ideal to read next.

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