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Mary Cleary Kiely: A good working memory affects academic success

One morning five years ago the eldest of my three brothers, J., who appeared to be in excellent health, suffered a major cardiac arrest. It resulted, among other things, in a lack of oxygen to his brain. My brother was able to be revived, and a defibrillator was installed. J. ended up spending a total of three months in intensive care and at a rehabilitation hospital, however, and today his life is very changed. Like many people with brain injury, one of things he suffers most from is a weakness in working memory.

Working memory is what enables us to “hold” one piece of information in mind while dealing with and manipulating other bits of information at the same time. An example would be trying to remember a series of walking or driving directions while also carrying out the individual steps (i.e., “OK, so here’s Turner Street, which I have to follow just past the fire station, then make a quick left onto Washington and the restaurant will be another quarter-mile up on the right.”)

Before my brother’s difficulties, I had never thought much about working memory. As I have learned since, however, individuals with brain injury are not the only ones who suffer from those kinds of deficits. Such challenges are in fact fairly common.

Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway, currently of the University of North Florida, has spent over a decade leading cutting-edge research on the importance of working memory in education. She estimates that as many as 1 in 10 students in mainstream classrooms may have working memory problems to a greater or lesser extent, problems that frequently go unrecognized or get mislabeled as laziness or an unwillingness to pay attention.

Alloway says a good working memory is so important to success is school that it is the best predictor for learning outcomes in 5-to 18-year-olds, better even than IQ or phonological skills.

Formal education makes enormous demands on the working memories of children and teens. They are exposed every day to new knowledge in a range of subject areas, some of which may be of little interest. The acceleration of the curriculum in general and the fast-paced nature of the school day and year only compounds the difficulties some students have in holding, juggling and making use of all this information.

A student with working memory challenges, for example, may have trouble taking notes while listening to a teacher who is discussing material being presented on a PowerPoint. She may lose track of where she is and what she is supposed to do next in a multi-step mathematical problem. He may forget the rest of the sentence he was going to write, while trying to focus on the spelling of an individual word. While reading she may have great difficulty retaining information, whether in the form of nonfiction facts or fictional characters and plots. Multi-step directions can be a real challenge.

What to do if you suspect your student has challenges with working memory?

A psychologist can administer appropriate assessments, which generally involve having the individual perform mental manipulations of increasing complexity. For some kids and teens, just finding out that difficulties with working memory have impacted their ability to learn can come as a great relief, reassuring them that they are neither unintelligent nor a slacker.

There is little agreement at present as to whether there are permanent fixes for deficits in working memory. Some psychologists refer clients to computerized training services like Cogmed or LearningRx , which have some evidence to support them but which are also expensive.

Regardless of whether a definitive treatment will one day be found, however, forms of supportive “scaffolding” can be implemented at home and school, accommodations that take account of the particular challenges presented by a relative weakness in working memory and that give students the best chance of success. One of the most important is giving an affected student more time to complete work, whether that work is writing down or doing homework, taking an exam or finishing a project. Students with working memory difficulties take longer to process information in general, so timed activities and speedy barrages of information can be problematic.

Another helpful strategy involves repetition. It can be useful to give students directions in both visual and verbal forms, to have a student repeat instructions back to a teacher or parent, and to put or to have students put instructions (e.g., the steps for long division) in a checklist format to break down tasks into smaller components and enable the student to self-monitor.

Students can also be encouraged to use tools like graphic organizers and Post-Its to keep track of their thought processes as they write and read. For many students, having support in the form of physical representations and records of their thinking can make the difference between confusion and being able to retain and manipulate information.

Most of these accommodations, of course, can also benefit students without diagnosed working memory issues. Almost all students today can use a little extra support in dealing with the large volume and the fast pace of instruction. Not surprisingly, when Alloway introduced working memory strategies in classrooms to help students with working memory impairments, teachers reported improvements in the class as a whole. Some of the improvements noted included better focus and concentration, along with increased ability to follow directions.

Mary Cleary Kiely may be reached at parenttoparent@gazettenet.com. Her column appears on the first Tuesday of the month.

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