Working Memory


What is it?

Working Memory refers to the ability to remember instructions or keep information in the mind long enough to perform tasks. We use simple working memory when we look at a phone number and keep it in mind while we dial it. Working memory is the sketch pad of the mind where we put things to think about and manipulate.

Children have to use their working memory throughout the school day, whether it is keeping in mind instructions, doing arithmetic, working in groups, or even crossing the room to sharpen a pencil. Simple working memory tests are highly correlated with IQ scores. There is evidence that working memory exercises can by themselves produce improvement in the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, probably because the same areas of the brain are associated with sustained attention, response inhibition and working memory.

When it’s a problem:

Imagine looking up a phone number, and then turning to your phone to dial the ten digit number. How many times do you have to look back and forth between the number and the phone? That’s working memory at work – small bits of information stored for a short period of time in the brain for the purpose of completing a given task. A student who has difficulties with working memory can have serious difficulties even remembering a set of instructions, much less staying on task do complete those instructions. These students, even if well intentioned, may become distracted easily and have difficulty remaining attentive in a wide variety of situations due to their inability to store and access this “sketch pad” of instructions. Further, their inability to retain information can cause these students to run into many difficulties with both reading comprehension and mathematics.


1) Help students get organized and on task. Have these students maintain a day-planner or agenda book that specifically keeps track of assignments and tasks. This can be especially helpful with managing homework: students can have teachers initial the agenda each day to “sign off” on assignments, and parents initial each day to “sign off” that the student brought it home.

2) Conference individually with each student as much as possible. Check for understanding of and ability to accomplish each classroom task at hand.

3) Spell it out. Use mnemonic devices, write out step-by-step instructions, continually refer to complete agendas for each lesson, use visual cues and repeat instructions (for classroom work and behavior) as often as necessary to keep students on task.

4) Use student-led instructional strategies that help to keep the student engaged.  Play upon the students’ preferred learning styles and rely less on teacher-centered strategies like lecture.  Employ technology and games to keep motivation high.

5) Continue using ACTIVATE. The link between brain training technology like ACTIVATE and the development of working memory has been well documented.  Specially, ACTIVATE exercises working memory by tying game tasks to increasingly complex directions and sequences that students must remember in short bursts in order to earn points.  For instance, in advanced levels of Pirate Pete’s Packing Panic, the students have to remember a sequence of patterns, and then organize pictures into those categories, following the sequence from memory.


When it’s a strength:

Students with a strong working memory are likely to do well maintaining focus and attention in a variety of academic settings. Because they’re capable to processing and remembering instructions and task goals, they can more readily be left to work independently – freeing teachers to get more hands-on with those students who are lacking working memory. If surrounded by students who don’t share their working memory strength, these students may end up feeling frustrated or bored by the repeated instructions or overly-structured lesson pace the rest of their class requires.


1) Create opportunities for these students to “break out” of the general classroom mold, and work independently. They may be able to work at a faster pace, or at least sustain attention longer than their peers, so these students may benefit from more opportunities to work solo, or in tandem with others like themselves, in a separate space like the library or computer lab.

2) Create assignments that specifically challenge memory. Have these students memorize poetry, or write and perform a skit or play. Assign increasingly complex math problems involving remembered rules like the order of operations. Give them extra vocabulary terms to learn for extra credit.

The 8 Core Cognitive Capacities

Further Reading:

“5 Ways Kids Use Working Memory” from

Working Memory – Wikipedia Article

A Workout for Working Memory – from the American Psychological Association

Peer-reviewed studies on Working Memory – from the US National Library of Medicine