Working memory: Improve behavior and learning in the classroom

Two elementary school girls sitting together working on a problem in class

New neuroscience research shows that children and adults can improve their working memory capacity. Just in the last couple of decades, scientists have realized the human brain is much more plastic and capable of building its capacity to hold more information in the part of the brain that affects cognitive functioning, or working memory. In the interview below, Dr. Sissela Nutley discusses working memory, the latest scientific discoveries, and how educators can use this knowledge and tools to help students in their classes, including students with ADHD, learning disabilities, down syndrome, and children who were born pre-term.

In a recently released white paper, Working Hard or Working Memory, educators can learn about new tools they can use to understand what is causing some of the disruptive behaviors they experience in the classroom, and how to help children expand their current level of cognitive ability.

Q. What is working memory?

Dr. Nutley: So working memory is the space in your brain that handles everything going on right here and now. It is closely linked to concentration but is more like a mental sketchpad that keeps track and works with information in the present. Everything you learn and memorize has to go through your working memory so it’s sort of like a door through which information has to pass to become knowledge. It is the function of the brain that helps us understand the meaning of a paragraph that we are reading, figure out the next logical step in a given situation, make a mental plan for a task and remember the next steps while doing each one. It’s really something we use everyday and all of the time to some degree.  

Q. Why study working memory?

Dr. Nutley: Well, as you can tell from its description, it is really the foundation of all advanced thinking and without it we couldn’t solve math problems, reason, debate or even carry out a coherent conversation. We need our working memory to process what’s going on right now and also to integrate what we are currently experiencing or learning with the knowledge we already have, which is stored in our long-term memory. The problem is, that while long-term memory is almost infinite, our working memory is temporary, sensitive and really limited in its capacity. That’s the reason why we can only really do one thing at a time – because our working memory or processing power if you will, is limited. The reason why it is also compelling to study is that it is commonly impaired in many people. It is common that working memory is affected after a head trauma, in ADHD, in children born pre-term and there is also a naturally large difference in capacity between individuals outside the clinical spectrum. With a low working memory capacity, many of the things our society are expecting of our brains today, will be more difficult.

Q. How does it affect the success of students?

Dr. Nutley: Having a limited amount of space to work with information will repeatedly lead to information overload which will cause essential learning opportunities to be lost. That means that the exercise has to be broken down in manageable pieces and repeated before it can become learned skills and knowledge. With this in mind it is perhaps not surprising to learn that out of kids with low working memory, 80% have trouble in math or reading and most have trouble in both. It does not mean that these kids are not intelligent or cannot learn, it just means that they have to learn in smaller chunks.

Q. What are some of the signs of low working memory in students?

Dr. Nutley: Typically these kids have a short attention span, difficulties following instructions, abandon tasks midway, show slow progress in reading and maths, are reluctant to raise their hand or participate in group activities, either mind wander or start a different activity e.g. talking, scribbling, acting out. Most of these kids are aware that they are struggling and that is almost always accompanied with feelings of frustration, low self esteem and can sometimes lead to negative behaviour.

Q. Is there a way to help students improve their working memory capacity?

Dr. Nutley: Yes! That is the best part of the research literature on working memory. It has gone through a revolutionary period where it has been shown, that working memory capacity can actually be trained. For decades, working memory was thought to develop during childhood reaching its maturity at around age 16, and then that was that, but a study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, showed in 2002 that 5 weeks of computerized training of working memory actually increased working memory with around 25% in children with ADHD. This and other studies of this experimental method lead to the training program now available to the public, called Cogmed working memory training which has since been researched by independent groups from all over the world (e.g. Harvard, University of Cambridge, St Jude, Yale etc) replicating and extending these findings in more than 85 different studies. It is a digital program where the student or patient works to little by little push their boundaries in working memory. Everyone works at their own level and with just 25 to 40 training sessions it has been shown that the brain actually changes how it works through neuroplasticity – it becomes more efficient.  It’s really cool actually and means a lot for our understanding of neuroplasticity.

Q. What are some tools available to help education professionals identify and work with students to improve their working memory capacity?

Dr. Nutley: Well I think most teachers would quite accurately be able to identify the children in each class that struggle with poor concentration and show slow progress academically, but there are also ways to measure working memory capacity with help from health care professionals if one wants to be able to get a number on that. In the classroom I think it’s important for the teacher to reflect on the cognitive load during instruction as chances are that there will be at least 3-5 children in each classroom that will struggle with meeting the demands placed on working memory during regular instruction. This will help these students manage during class. The other approach that may be more beneficial in the long term, is strengthening their capacity to deal with the demands of the environment by having them go through Cogmed working memory training. In fact, in many parts of the world, some schools have whole classes go through Cogmed as part of the curriculum because they see improvements for everyone! Also by doing it that way, it raises the lowest level in the classroom, raises the awareness of the “brain’s role” in learning, avoids pulling the children that are already struggling in school out of class to do it, and reduces the stigma around attention deficits.   

Q. What does the recent white paper your team created offer educators?

Dr. Nutley: I hope it offers them insight into what may be going on behind “the curtains” in students that they have in their classrooms struggling with concentration and learning. It may offer new direction on how to approach working memory difficulties in the classroom both from the teacher perspective but may also inform on how to get working memory training implemented for some of these kids.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Dr. Nutley: Just that there has been a wide gap between the research being conducted in the field of neuroscience and in educational psychology and pedagogy and I look forward to a future where these two worlds have merged more closely together as I think the learnings would be tremendous and benefit all.


Learn more about working memory and how educators can help students overcome difficulties in the classroom in the full white paper.


About Dr. Nutley
Sissela Nutley, Ph.D.

Sissela Nutley, Ph.D.

Sissela Nutley, Ph.D., is one of the authors of the working memory white paper. She is a researcher within the field of cognitive neuroscience and has focused especially on the development and training of executive functions in children. She has a master’s degree in Biomedicine from Uppsala University after which she joined the Cognitive Development lab at Karolinska Institutet where she obtained her graduate degree.

Her research mostly involved developing and testing the efficacy of cognitive training paradigms in RCTs within the domains of working memory, inhibitory functions and fluid intelligence. She also investigated the influence of playing a musical instrument on the development of working memory in a longitudinal study on children and adolescents.

Dr. Nutley joined Cogmed and Pearson in 2011 and has since been focused on developing certain aspects of the program, evaluating and interpreting the in house data and the independent evidence base associated with Cogmed working memory training.