Ms Linda Shardlow, Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
This article is taken from The Learning Scientists blog – posted April 25, 2019, by Althea Need Kaminske
Working memory refers to your ability to manipulate and remember information over a short period of time (about two minutes). It’s very similar to short term memory, but when we use the term working memory we are emphasizing the manipulation of information. For example, if someone gave you a telephone number to write down, you might have to silently repeat the numbers to yourself while you search for a pad of paper. This task could be made more difficult if you try to continue with the conversation as you are searching for the pad of paper. Your ability to follow along with the conversation, while looking for a pad of paper, and while repeating those numbers to yourself, is your working memory.
There are some differences between people’s working memory ability. For some people the task described above may seem nearly impossible – you fail to find the pad of paper, follow the conversation, or remember the numbers almost every time. For others, it’s a bit easier – while it may be challenging, you can usually follow the conversation, find the paper, and remember the number without skipping a beat. Differences in working memory have been associated with reading comprehension, logic and reasoning, and IQ scores. Given the strong association with academics, a lot of research has been done on explaining differences in working memory and possible ways to improve it, particularly in school-age children.
There are several different theories about how working memory works. Theories vary in how they emphasize different aspects of working memory. Some emphasize the role of attention, others the ability to access and use past information, and others still on how inhibitory processes allow us to stay on task. However, most theories agree on the basics. Working memory involves at least four different skills and abilities working together.
Note that all of these components work together. In order for you to set your attentional priorities – “Where did I put that paper?” “I should read this blog and ignore that text message I just got.” – you need have some broader context from your long-term memory. However, your attentional priorities might shift based on new information. You might see an important note or delinquent bill while searching for paper that causes you to cut the conversation short and address this new, higher priority item. Or you might have every intention of finishing this article until you are suddenly interrupted by your friend rushing into the room shouting, “Hurry! There’s no time!”.
While we talk about working memory ability as if it were one thing, it is made up of these different components. Differences in working memory ability, then, may be attributed to differences in these sub-components of working memory. One of the differences that has received a lot of attention is attention, particularly in children with ADHD.
As mentioned above, working memory is associated with some very important things like, logic, reasoning, reading, and IQ. It’s a big part of our everyday lives. Working memory also plays a crucial role in education. Our ability to learn new things, master new skills, and generally follow directions hinges on our working memory. It’s a pretty big deal.