Accessing Information: Impact of Active Working Memory

Active working memory involves the ability to hold things together in one's mind while working with them, such as steps in a process or attributes of a concept. Active working memory plays a large role in helping students produce quality work and communicate their ideas effectively. Following instructions, deploying strategies, and problem solving, for example, are all aided by a student's active working memory.

Students with active working memory problems may have trouble utilizing information in their heads while performing a task, such as when working a math problem, participating in a classroom discussion, or while writing a report.

Here are some strategies to help students develop their ability to access information through a focus on active working memory.

Helpful Hints

  • Provide students with explicit comprehension questions to ask themselves as they're reading, solving a problem, etc., to help consolidate that information into memory.  
  • Adjust the amount of material that students must process and produce at one time to lesson the demands on active working memory. For example, break activities such as reading passages, written reports and tests into manageable chunks or stages.  
  • Encourage students to preview, or look ahead at a task before beginning it. For example, reading the questions at the end of chapters or on worksheets before they start reading.  
  • Arrange activities that allow students to exercise their active working memory "muscles." For example,
    • Have students do mental math computations. Put them in the context of a real situation, such as going to the movies or carpeting a room.
    • Teach estimation strategies. Practice estimation as both a step in verifying the logic of performed calculations and as a practical mental math tool. Begin with problems that are easy for the student to calculate and are meaningful to the student's life.
    • Give students a list and ask them to give it back in reverse order. Use numbers, words, visuals (shapes, figures), etc. Provide and require practice using both written and oral lists.