Any time you are ‘holding something in your mind’, such as calculating a bill, remembering a new phone number or a set of directions you’ve just been given, you are using working memory – it’s the name given to our ability to hold (and also manipulate) information in our minds over short periods of time.
In adults, famous experiments from the 1950s suggested that the capacity of this memory store was ‘7 plus or minus 2’ items – in other words between 5 and 9 items, depending on the individual. We can increase this capacity with clever strategies or if the information is in different forms… but it’s still a useful guide.
Children’s working memory capacity is still developing until their mid-teens in most cases, and approximately 10% of children in any one class may display impaired working memory. This means that in a class of 9 year olds, we might expect at least 3 or so to have a WM capacity of not much more than 2-3 items. This is important, as teachers may quite often give instructions which consist of a number of steps (e.g. “Cut out the shape from the piece of paper and stick it in your, books, then finish the exercises from yesterday”). This might exceed the WM capacity of some children, leading to organisational difficulties.
Suggestions for practice:
- Reduce the number of steps in instructions that are given at one time, or breaking down tasks into chunks.
- Provide instructions in written forms, or some other form that can be referred back to.
Team this idea also with ‘load theory of attention’ – aim to produce activities which have high attentional load but low working memory load. Also with ‘cognitive load theory’, which helps to clarify the sorts of activities which influence working memory.
Turn it off! Working memory limitations explain why music and learning don’t often go together…