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Working memory and the role it plays in learning

In school, your child relies on memory to learn. However, different types of memory come into play in different situations. Psychology Today defines working memory as “a form of memory that allows a person to temporarily hold a limited amount of information at the ready for immediate mental use.” It is critical for all kinds of mental processes and for learning new things. 


Children use their working memory when they recall all the little things that go into more complex things. For example: 

  • When a teacher gives multi-step directions, your child must be able to pay attention to that information and store it long enough to retrieve it for subsequent parts of directions. 
  • When a teacher tells students to put their names at the top of their papers and write down their student numbers, your child must hold onto that information long enough to actually do this. 
  • When a teacher introduces a guest speaker by name and asks the students to write that name down, students must tap into their working memory to retain those details for use thereafter. 
  • When a child must remember part of a math problem to complete the rest of it (for example, completing the sum of three numbers in a numerator divided by the sum of three numbers in the denominator), that requires working memory. 

Think of the working memory as your child’s personal white board where he or she can jot down information and manipulate it. It enables students to do complex work by accessing short-term information. 


There are several ways to build and strengthen the working memory: 

  1. Chunking – The chunking method involves taking larger tasks and breaking them down into smaller, more manageable chunks. You can do this during homework time by helping your child break down homework into specific tasks and assigning times to those tasks. 
  2. Play memory-based games — There are many games and apps out there. Good examples of games that give children practice retaining information while also using it are chess, checkers, puzzles, sudoku, card games, memory card games and crossword puzzles. 
  3. Have your child repeat things back to you — Ever ask children to do something and discover five minutes later that not only have they not done it, but they’ve also forgotten what you asked? For children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, this is a common problem. Give clear, concise directions and ask your child to repeat them back to you. Do this without stress or guilt to help your child get into the habit of active, focused listening. 
  4. Read, read, read — There’s a strong connection between working memory and reading comprehension. As children read words, their memories are hard at work decoding and understanding while continuing to absorb each sentence, each paragraph and the story overall. At a young age, have your child read aloud to you. 
  5. What can you do if your child’s working memory is weak? — If your child struggles with things like focus and attention, reading comprehension, math or other subjects, several issues could be contributing. Pay attention to the following problems: 
  • Homework taking significantly longer than it should 
  • Executive functioning is weak or nonexistent 
  • Inconsistent or dropping grades 
  • Difficulty starting homework and procrastination 
  • Inattention/focus challenges during homework and daily tasks 
  • Reading problems 
  • Difficulty recalling what they learned during the school days (and therefore, homework difficulty) 

If your child struggles with issues related to working memory, he or she might benefit from a personalized tutoring program created with his or her individual needs in mind to develop the building blocks for school success.

Written by Huntington Learning Center

The Huntington Learning Center Gulfport is located at 8950 Lorraine Road, Unit E, Gulfport. Contact the center at (228) 206- 2353.

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