Short Term & Working Memory

What is Short-Term Memory and Working Memory?
Short-term memory refers to holding a bit of information in one’s immediate awareness
and then to use it within a few seconds (it is very short duration memory). Working memory
refers to the ability to store information temporarily while performing another task at the same
time. Working memory has a longer duration than that of short-term memory, although it is also
a short-duration, limited-capacity memory system that simultaneously stores and allows one to
manipulate information in order to accomplish a task. Working memory is also known as the
“Workbench” of memory that temporarily holds information as it is being used or worked on. It
is a deliberate (conscious awareness) thinking process. Working memory is what allows us to
multitask and perform several cognitive tasks simultaneously.
Working Memory plays a critical, integral role in cognitive functioning and academic
learning. Reading decoding, reading comprehension, math reasoning, and written expression all
depend heavily on the adequate functioning of working memory. Students with learning
disabilities often have deficits in working memory.
Deficits in working memory can have profound classroom implications. For instance, the
student may have difficulty recalling the beginning of a sentence while reading words at the end
of the sentence as well as difficulty “visualizing” and manipulating symbolic representations
(letters and numbers) needed to assist with spelling and math skills. They tend to lose their place
or “train of thought” while working and then not knowing what the next step is. The student may
forget multi-step directions or have difficulty monitoring his own behavior and thought processes
while engaged in a task and thus prone to errors. Also, the written language process tends to
require many simultaneous memory recall skills and it becomes very difficult for the student to
execute the writing skills effectively. In serious cases it can be difficult for some students to
appropriately follow the thread of a conversation. Copying information from a blackboard in the
classroom may be compromised. In math one may become overwhelmed with too many steps in
solving problems or they may lose track of logic or a strategy. Note-taking in classes can also be
difficult for students who have working memory problems and they often forget the information
as they hear it, process it and then try to write it on paper.
These students may have trouble remembering information such as instructions and
phone numbers, even for a few seconds, for example. They often miss important information that
is presented orally such as complex directions because it often exceeds their working memory
capacity. Working memory is also needed to sustain attention. These children may not persevere
with tasks and may fail to complete tasks. They may have difficulty organizing materials. They
may misplace their school supplies and/or belongings.
Improving Working Memory
Practice basic skills to the point of automaticity. This refers to developing automaticity to
the extent where mental processes or mental operations can be performed with little awareness or
conscious effort. This is important in decoding words and developing a sight vocabulary in
reading, grammar and punctuation in writing, basic operations in math such as addition,
subtraction or multiplication. Ideally if these skills become automatic this would allow the
working memory to be used for more complex problem solving instead.
Chunking separate items of information into larger more meaningful units. For example,
to recall a series of numbers such as 2589064, you might group them like this: 25 890 64, which
would be easier to remember.
Use of both oral and printed material to take stress off working memory in order to avoid
overloading it. Keep descriptions short, concise and information presented slower to prevent
overload. Checklists for academic task completion can be very helpful in this regard.
Access to class outlines or teacher’s notes, to which the student can refer are helpful,
rather than copying from the blackboard where information could be lost from the transition
from the board to paper.
Verbal rehearsal strategies are helpful to keep the information in immediate awareness
long enough to manipulate it and transfer it to longer-term memory.
Getting in the habit of taking personal notes in situations in classes and at home when
there is a lot of information presented or unfamiliar and/or complicated information or while
reading that you want to be able to review and process at a later time can be very helpful.
Arthur C. Potwin
School Psychologist
May 2013