The Role of Working Memory in Cognitive Development, Everyday learning, and Academic Performance

By Jess Corinne
November 6, 2021

Almost every time we meet with a family to discuss their learner’s Executive Functioning profile, we are asked this question. So what is working memory anyway? As a parent and educator myself, I would love to provide insight into working memory and how it impacts learning throughout our lifespan!

First, let’s define it!

Working memory is one of the three overarching component sub skills of Executive Functioning. Simply put, working memory is your brain’s ability to temporarily store information (think placeholder or sticky note) for a number of seconds in order to focus your attention on manipulating that same information for another use. Working memory is a cognitive skill that is important for reasoning and the guidance of decision making and behavior.  Struggling to calculate math mentally, visualize letters while spelling, follow multi-step directions, and self-check one’s work are just a few examples of how weak working memory can present and prevent one from reaching their learning potential.

Working Memory and Learning 

Emerging readers and mathematicians are required to activate their working memory many times a day in and out of the classroom. Whether it is recognizing a word pattern, vowel sound, number, operation – whatever the sensory (visual, auditory, tactile) input is, our learners must tap into their working memory and make connections to information stored in their long-term memory almost immediately upon receiving the input.  Visual and verbal working memory join forces to allow learners to fully process the communicative world around them. 

Learners who struggle with language processing skills and sustained attention, find it difficult to “keep things in mind” which is another way of saying utilize their working memory. According to the International Dyslexia Association, “Approximately 10% of us have weak working memory; however, the estimates of the percentage of weak working memory in students with specific learning disorders, including dyslexia, ranges from 20 to 50 percent. Weak working memory is a core difficulty for students with ADHD, Inattentive Type.” This is primarily due to the fact that information must pass through their prefrontal cortex, where our Executive Functioning skills such as attention and regulation are housed, before it can reach the areas in the brain that they need to fully access information. So, if the front of their brain is unable to perform, then it serves as a block to the rest of the brain. 

Working Memory and Anxiety 

Anxiety can impact one’s working memory skills as well. I like to refer to this as the “stress fog effect” – the anxiety and stress that learners experience is a double whammy because not only are their brains wired differently to start, they also have to discover methods to prevent their increase in anxiety from gating the rest of the pathways in their brain from functioning.

 

Strategies to Improve Working Memory 

Although there is no easy fix here, educators and caregivers can explicitly teach strategies to support learners discover how they learn best (metacognitively). Examples include learning how to: bullet point notes, jot thoughts down on sticky notes within text, maximize various checklists, use airwriting as a technique to learn math facts and word patterns, chunk information into sections and assignments into manageable parts, and list the steps for more complex tasks to execute – to name a few! We recognize that working memory is a somewhat abstract concept, so please reach out if you are curious to learn more or have a question about a specific learner/strategy!