Holding Information in Mind: Impact of Active Working Memory

Active working memory, the ability to hold things together in the mind, such as ideas or steps in a process, plays a large role in helping students deal with large volumes of material and form concepts. In order to build concepts, students must recode and condense what they are learning. 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 or while reading a chapter.

Here are some techniques to help students enhance their understanding through active working memory strategies.

Helpful Hints

  • Preview material, such as difficult words, new concepts, challenging computations in math, etc. so that students can allocate energy to the task without getting overloaded by active memory demands.  
  • Present information in manageable chunks or stages, rather than all at once. For example,
    • Break extended activities down into smaller tasks, e.g., a long lecture into two parts.
    • When giving directions and instructions, limit the use of multi-step directions; e.g., give only 1 or 2 steps at a time. Ask students to repeat the directions before beginning the task.
    • Group similar concepts together in your lesson. Help students see the patterns in what they are learning through how your presentation is organized.  
  • Teach students to build their active listening skills in order to enhance learning and understanding. For example,
    • Teach students to use a self-monitoring technique for active listening, such as FACT (Focus attention- Ask yourself questions-Connect ideas-Try to picture important ideas). Arrange for students to engage in post-listening activities: Review notes from a lesson after class, Connect what was heard today with what is already in notes, Question themselves if there's anything they don't understand so they can get immediate clarification, Draw up a summary statement from the lecture, and Read the summary statement as a pre-listening tool at the beginning of the next class session.
    • Integrate listening and memory practice into daily instruction by having students give you a title for a short story read aloud, a summary of a brief passage read aloud, or by reorganizing mixed up sentences into the proper order.  
  • Encourage students to represent new ideas in multiple ways as they are learning them. For example,
    • Use discussion groups and reciprocal questioning activities in which students move through the stages of summarizing ideas, generating questions about the material, clarifying comprehension of the material and predicting or anticipating information to come.
    • Have students create graphic representations of information heard or read. Flow charts, for example, can represent procedural concepts such as steps for a bill to become a law and photosynthesis; tables can be used to compare and contrast concepts learned during classroom instruction, etc.
    • When teaching students how to create and organize graphics such as concept maps and diagrams, begin with content that they are already familiar with and can use independently, so they are able to attend to the details of the strategy. Then gradually have them create graphics for new content as they are learning it.
    • Have students make their own concept maps and/or outlines on a weekly basis, linking new material to what they've learned. These maps should be kept in a folder and used for by students when studying for future tests.
    • Activate associations by having students attach visualizations or mental images to information they are learning. Teach students how to create analogies that help build associations between concepts in their minds.  
  • 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.