How to Improve Working Memory

Working Memory

What is working memory?  Working memory is the ability to hold information in our minds for a short period of time.  For example, when working on a complex maths exercise, such as an arithmetic question, this could be challenging for the memory.  The amount that can be held in our working memory is limited and this can vary with everyone.  When the information is lost it cannot be retrieved.

Maths has been considered an important subject for the development of children’s cognitive skills and this links in with additional academic subjects such as science, technology or engineering.  Grocutt (2020) studies on working memory argue when children learn timetables for the first time, their auditory recital plays an important role in managing and remembering input.  Between the years 3-4 a change in strategy takes place with greater contributions coming from the viso-spatial memory and Grocutt discusses how times table rockstars may help facilitate with its audio-visual form of learning.  Similarly, the present research undertaken by Perez, et al (2018) studies on integrating computer-based training learning involving mathematical skills and working memory, data reveal that students who took part in the study showed higher levels of non-verbal IQ and cognition compared to those who didn’t take part. By incorporating computerized mathematical tasks and games into a student’s academic routine has shown to create positive results with working memory and IQ.

How does memory work?

Markman (2012) The main principle which determines what information is going to be retrieved from the memory is that information is retrieved from the memory when the current situation matches the situation in which that information was learned.  When you learn new information, it becomes associated with the context in which you are learning, such as the senses. 

When studying for exams, Markman suggests spreading out the learning knowledge and studying in a variety of different settings, this helps reinforce the connection between the material and your internal context, for example as you focus on what you are studying, it will remain constant, the more you read the material, the greater the chance it becomes a trigger to remember most of it.  Thus, studying in just one setting has shown to have less benefits compared to changing the study environment.

Those students who have lower levels of working memory can result in lower and slower progress in the classroom, other issues such as being easily distracted, possibly due to memory overload, therefore this could be a reason why the student isn’t progressing as well as they could.

Strategies for students

  1.  To repeat information, smaller phrases, rather than larger pieces of text to absorb.
  2.  To have a variety of resources, using video as a tool, books, other sources of information such as multi-sensory practical activities and exercises and computerized games.
  3. Chunking – to reduce the amount of material and focus on smaller tasks/pieces of work.
  4. One task at a time – rather than having multiple tasks, to complete one before moving to the next.
  5. Targets – setting regular goals and targets, then ticking them off the list when this has been achieved, this is a good way of tracking progress.
  6. Use diagrams as a form of imagery to annotate and express elements of a problem.
  7. Work with others in small groups or 1:1.
  8. Use a variety of setting to reinforce the material you are learning.
  9. Think of learning as a marathon, not a sprint, it takes time to absorb material and this needs to be reinforced through spreading the material over a longer period to enable connections and associations.


Grocutt, J. (2020) Analysis of strategies for developing working memory in schools. Master’s dissertation in education

Markman, A. (2012) Smart Thinking, how to think big, innovate and outperform your rivals.

Perez, et al (2018) Computer-based training in math and working memory improves cognitive skills & academic achievement in primary school children, behaviour result.

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