How do we help students with poor working memory in our classrooms?

A sharing best practice post by Caroline Hill (SENCO)

Reading time: 4 minutes

There is much that has been written about the importance of understanding how memory works. As teachers we face the challenge of ensuring that our students make the most of their memory in dealing with the greater demands that GCSE courses now make of them.  However, do we spare a thought for those students who have poor working memories?

“More than 80% of children with poor working memory fail to achieve expected levels of attainment in either reading or maths, typically both.”                  (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008)

Cognitive load theory talks  of working memory being only able to manage a limited number of ideas at any one time and that recall of information for future use requires transfer to the long-term memory.

What are the needs of those students who have greater difficulties than most because of their challenges in using their working memory?

What are the demands we place on such students as teachers?

What strategies can we use to support the learning of students whose working memory is less effective than the great majority of students?

Typically students with a poor working memory will:

  • make poor academic progress
  • be reserved when working in groups
  • have difficulty in following instructions
  • experience problems when undertaking activities involving the processing and storage of information

Teachers of such students are likely to say:

  • “he has a short attention span”
  • “she is easily distracted”
  • “he’s in a world of his/her own”
  • “she doesn’t listen to a word I say”
  • “he’s always day-dreaming”
  • “with her, it’s in one ear and out of the other”

(Medical Research Centre 2011)

Students with certain developmental disorders are more likely to have a poor working memory.  These include:

  • reading difficulties/dyslexia
  • maths difficulties/dyscalcula
  • specific language impairment
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • genetic disorders including Downs syndrome, Williams syndrome, Fragile X syndrome
  • cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension

The impact of the above can affect different aspects of memory in these students.  For some it is procedural memory (how to carry out certain skills); for others it may be semantic memory (recall of facts); autobiographical memory (knowledge concerning their own life); episodic memory (remembering specific events) or working memory (being able to recall recent information).

Pupils experiencing such difficulties may have difficulties in understanding the instructions a teacher gives to them; whether it be sequencing verbal instructions or even of understanding the instructions given.

As teachers, working with students facing such difficulties in a busy classroom there are many challenges.  We all know that ‘teachers abhor a vacuum’ and we are prone, when asking questions, to wait for no more than a second before expecting an answer or filling the gap ourselves.  Even when giving pupils ‘wait time’ before expecting an answer we are unlikely to wait more than five seconds before changing tack.   Similarly, when giving instructions how often do we present the class with a sequence of instructions verbally, only to repeat different parts of those instructions, perhaps in a different order, in response to those who didn’t get it the first time or who get stuck at a later stage.

For the students with difficulties in working memory they may need 20 seconds or more simply to process an instruction or a question.  It would be a telling exercise as a teacher to consider what it would feel like for us, to stand in front of class while being observed and be prepared to wait a full 20 seconds before getting a response to a question!

So, what can we do practically in our lessons to support these students?  The following ideas may help.  They require little additional preparation – perhaps just a little extra thought in the planning and delivery of our lessons:

  1. Allow pupils additional time to think – even if it is more than you think they need!
  2. Break down instructions into smaller, more manageable steps
  3. Provide support through visual aids/prompts to help them link tasks
  4. Use paired work to take away some of the stress of being ‘put on the spot’
  5. Give the whole class a question to think about
  6. Inform the pupil that you’d link them to answer a question in a minute, ask someone else a question and then come back to the first pupil who has now had time to think

Featured image: ‘Movement’ by Geralt on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

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