Working Memory in Cognitive Development, 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!

What is Working Memory and How Does it Differ from Short-Term Memory & Long-Term Memory? 

Working memory involves the retention of a small amount of information in a readily accessible form to be used in active cognitive tasks. It is required for all planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving tasks. It differs from long-term memory, which is information taken from short-term memory and stored away into long-lasting memories. Think back to your high school graduation, wedding date, or birth of your first child—these are long-term memories. Short-term memory and working memory are more closely related; it’s generally held that short-term memory is only very briefly retained, while working memory is kept slightly longer to facilitate active tasks. For instance, when someone tells you a phone number, your short-term memory picks it up long enough for you to write it down. By contrast, working memory is retained a bit longer: a series of plot points you are told about a show, or story you are listening to, for example—you need to engage your working memory to make sense of the show. 

In a study published in The Educational Psychology Review, the author links the importance of working memory to learning tasks and outcomes, “In order for information to enter long-term memory in a form that allows later retrieval, it first must be present in working memory in a suitable form.” 

There are also other types of memory, such as explicit (those available to you consciously) and implicit (mostly subconscious) memory. Explicit memory can be further subcategorized into episodic and semantic memories, which deal with events and knowledge about your surroundings. 

How Working Memory is Related to Executive Function

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. It 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.

How it Affects 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 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.


ADHD and Memory

According to research, children with ADHD have working memory challenges compared to their neurotypical peers. expands on this link,  “Many experts today argue that attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is not, at its core, an attention problem, but rather a self-regulation problem exacerbated by weak working memory.” Dr. Russell Barkley of the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, refers to working memory as the GPS for the brain—but also points out how it is disproportionately weaker in people with ADHD.

Strategies to Improve 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 contact us if you are curious to learn more or have a question about a specific learner or strategy! 

Quick tips to improve working memory

Learnfully provides Executive Function coaching and intervention classes, which target critical working memory skills. Fill out the form there, or call us at 650-459-5900 to learn more.