Wait, why did I come in here?
By Matt McLeod
Notes With Reminders by Salman Hossain Saif from NounProject
I can tell you my first driver’s license number, many of my former and current credit card numbers, the name of my first crush in elementary school, and the secret recipe for our family’s favorite pancakes. That information, encoded long ago, can come to mind with ease. But when I get myself ready to walk out the door to run errands, I’ll find myself standing in a room not knowing what I came in there to do or, once in the car, realizing I left the overdue library books sitting next to the front door. This is my working memory playing tricks on me.
Working memory, also referred to as active working memory, is often used interchangeably with the expression short-term memory, but they are in fact different from one another. Short-term memory allows us to take in a piece of information and decide what to do with it—dismiss it, write it down, file it away for later—and then the information is gone. Working memory, on the other hand, is what kicks into action when the brain processes everything you need to know and do in a span of time. It often requires accessing task-relevant information that has been stored in long-term memory. Keeping tabs on the pasta you’re cooking while washing vegetables as your children ask what time to be ready for the party next Friday places tremendous demands on working memory. It’s processing all the data bombarding our senses that our short-term memory decides we must deal with. Working memory picks up where short-term memory leaves off.
Active working memory is critical to learning and doing mathematics. It is the means by which we remember the result of one calculation as we do another, and then put those together while remembering why we were doing those calculations in the first place, and then using the final result to answer the question. It helps us keep track of our progress and organize information. It helps us know what information is needed from our long-term memory or from the piece of paper on which we wrote it. Challenges with active working memory can show up in many ways. A student might forget the instructions for a task, or forget the order of the steps in a problem, or lose track of which step they are on. Another student might lose count and have to start from the beginning. For students who are English Learners, much of their working memory is used to process the language, leaving little to apply to the mathematics. And students who come to school with other things on their mind—safety, hunger, lack of sleep—also have reduced bandwidth in their active working memory. Working memory challenges can be very difficult and severely limit students’ access to a lesson.
In Math for All, we pay careful attention to what a lesson or math task asks of students by analyzing an activity alongside a detailed breakdown of the aspects of memory (and other neurodevelopmental constructs) involved. This allows teachers to assess which brain functions are in high demand during an activity, which is a first step toward strategizing how to lighten the load on students’ working memory and open up access to a lesson.
While most researchers agree that there are limits to the number of things we can store in our working memory, there is little consensus as to what that limit is and whether or not it can be increased. However, there are strategies that we can use to help maximize this very important neurodevelopmental function, and you’ll find a few suggestions for this below. None of these is presented as a “silver bullet” that’s guaranteed to increase working memory. One or more of these might work for one person while other strategies could work for others; understanding who the learner is and where their strengths and challenges lie could help in deciding what to try. In Math for All, we look through all the lenses of the neurodevelopmental framework to learn about individuals, and from this holistic picture we can make a more informed decision about what might be helpful.
Here are possible strategies to try.
Visualization. One way to hold onto something in your memory is to visualize it. In mathematics, you might picture a number, or a shape, or a quantity of an item on a playing card. It also could help to see a number represented on fingers. For example, to add 7 + 8, imagine two hands holding up 7 fingers–a full 5 fingers on one hand and 2 fingers on the other. Then, picture two more hands, one holding up 5 fingers and the other holding up 3. The two 5-fingered hands could be counted to make 10, then the 3- and 2-fingered hands would add up to 5. All together, this would be 10 and 5, which total 15. Using this method works for storing a fact for a moment and then recalling it when you need it. Another example might be to “see” something the way it would look if you were able to write it down.
Mnemonic devices. A tactic often used for long-term memory and recall, mnemonic devices also could support working memory. One example is to make a sentence with all the words of the things you need to remember. For example, if you need to remember eggs, bread, milk, oranges, and oatmeal for a grocery store run, a helpful sentence could be something like I’ll have eggs on bread with a side of oranges and milk to drink for breakfast, instead of oatmeal. Sometimes, building nonsensical sentences (The oranges and oatmeal took over my kitchen and locked the eggs, milk, and bread in the refrigerator) adds an emotional aspect to the activity, thereby creating an additional memory trigger. Acronyms, such as HOMES for the names of the Great Lakes or PEMDAS representing the order of operations in mathematical expressions with more than one operation, are also examples of mnemonic devices.
Build fluency and automaticity. The more something is practiced, the more automatic it becomes, and the less memory capacity is needed to process it. Being fluid with number facts, for example, can help to reduce working memory load and free up bandwidth for other demands. Two excellent resources on building fluency are:
- Jo Boaler, et al., Fluency without Fear
- Susan Jo Russell, Developing Computational Fluency with Whole Numbers in the Elementary Grades
Monotasking. Working on two things at once splits your attention, so it is beneficial to focus on only a single task at a time. Distractions also can get in the way and usurp some of your active working memory. Helping a student identify what might distract them and find ways to remove those distractions could help maximize working memory effectiveness.
Incorporate multiple senses. Saying something out loud, perhaps multiple times, as you look at a picture of it engages your brain in many ways, each serving as a possible reinforcement to the other. Writing something down as you speak it or hear someone else say it also may be helpful.
Write it down. Temporarily removing something from working memory allows something else to enter instead. Taking a moment to jot down the steps of a task, for example, can help mitigate working memory challenges.
Chunk items. Putting a string of numbers or letters into groups of three or four at a time reduces cognitive load. Sharing a 10-digit number that’s been broken down into clusters (312-555-0109 as opposed to 3125550109) gives us all the ability to remember lots of phone numbers. A 16-digit credit card number, broken down into smaller clusters, allows many of us to recall the sequence to make purchases.
Exercise your body. There has been some research that regular physical activity increases the effectiveness of working memory, particularly in terms of executive functioning and organization. Physical exercise can improve sleep, reduce stress, and improve your mood, all of which are helpful for active working memory.
Exercise your brain! You’ve likely heard the expression “Your brain is a muscle, you have to exercise it.” While it’s not scientifically true that the brain is a muscle, it does benefit from mental exercise. Do this by playing games that use working memory, such as “Concentration” (one version here) or card games in which it’s helpful to keep track of cards that have been played. You also have to remember the rules while you are playing. However it happens, explicit practice with increased expectations of working memory use should increase working memory success.
So, for me, I already attached my key ring to my reusable bags so I remember to take them with me to the grocery store. And from now on, I’ll put the library books in a place to ensure I trip over them on the way out the door.
Sources and other resources
Sanjay Gupta on multitasking (video)
APA Article on a working memory workout (September 2005)
Psychology Today article on watermelon mai tais (and working memory) (September 2020)
8 Working Memory Boosters article from Understood for All (undated)
ADDitude article on an easy solution for remembering (September 2021)
ADDitude article on brain training tricks (July 2022)
Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.