Monday, November 7, 2016

Working Memory: The RAM of the Brain

Photo courtesy of
So what the heck is working memory?  I think of it as the RAM of our human computer, our brain. James has a relative weakness in his working memory. His score on the WISC -V was a standard score of 85; however, a score of just 79 is considered borderline. So this is quite a low score, overall, for James who is my highest cognitively-abled child. Margaret got a standard score of 62. This puts her in the severely impaired.  Joseph has a standard score of 79.  If you knew him you might find this surprising since he is SO slow due to his processing speed. Over time though, I have noticed that both Margaret and Joseph are both quite impaired.  I know now it is in different way.  Margaret has major working memory problems but is much faster at processing information.  Joseph on the other hand is SUPER slow in processing speed BUT he mas better working memory and long term memory.  Over time, I think, this will serve him better.

So what exactly is working memory? 

The computer, so useful a metaphor in cognitive psychology, offers an intuitively appealing model for thinking about the nature and structure of working memory.

Simplifying the workings of a computer, there are two means by which information is stored, the hard disk and random-access memory (RAM). The hard disk is the means by which information is stored permanently in a stable and reliable form; all software programs, data files, and the operating system of the computer are stored on the hard disk. To use this stored information you must retrieve it from the hard disk and load it into RAM. Now for the analogy: the information stored in the hard disk is like long-term memory, RAM corresponds to working memory.

How well does this metaphor fit with actual human working memory structure and function? The evidence is not all in, but cognitive and neuroscience approaches to the study of working memory have in many ways revolutionized the types of questions that can be asked and provided new insights into how working memory works.

memory is the mind’s ability to keep information for a short span of time, as you utilize such facts for the tasks and activities you need to do. It makes use of two lobes: the frontal lobe, which is responsible for planning, reasoning, emotions, problem-solving, movement and speech; and the parietal lobe, which governs the perception of stimuli such as pain, pressure, touch and temperature.

Since working memory is naturally brief, it makes use of attention and memory, but only for a short span of time. It is considered the foundation of the mind’s executive function, a group of mental processes that allows an individual to solve problems, plan ahead, pay attention and organize activities.

There are two types of working memory used by all individuals. They are:

1. Visual-Spatial Working Memory

Defined as the brain’s ability to use an ‘imaginary sketchpad,’ it enables a person to visualize something – and keep it in his mind’s eye. Individuals can use this type of working memory to remember images, sequences and patterns. It is also useful for computing mathematical equations in the mind.

The visuo-spatial sketch pad (inner eye) deals with visual and spatial information. Visual information refers to what things look like. It is likely that the visuo-spatial sketch pad plays an important role in helping us keep track of where we are in relation to other objects as we move through our environment (Baddeley, 1997).

As we move around, our position in relation to objects is constantly changing and it is important that we can update this information. For example, being aware of where we are in relation to desks, chairs and tables when we are walking around a classroom means that we don't bump into things too often!

The sketch pad also displays and manipulates visual and spatial information held in long-term memory. For example, the spatial layout of your house is held in Long Term Memory (LTM). Try answering this question: How many windows are there in the front of your house? You probably find yourself picturing the front of your house and counting the windows. An image has been retrieved from LTM and pictured on the sketch pad.

Evidence suggests that working memory uses two different systems for dealing with visual and verbal information. A visual processing task and a verbal processing task can be performed at the same time. It is more difficult to perform two visual tasks at the same time because they interfere with each other and performance is reduced. The same applies to performing two verbal tasks at the same time. This supports the view that the phonological (verbal) loop and the sketch pad (visual) are separate systems within working memory.

2. Auditory/Verbal Working Memory

This area of working memory makes use of the mind’s phonological or sound system. A good example is repeatedly dictating a phone number while dialing it. While it cannot be retained while doing a certain a task, it is touted by many as a common learning disadvantage in most activities like tasks that make use of verbal working memory include comprehension and language activities.

The phonological loop is the part of working memory that deals with spoken and written material. It consists of two parts. The phonological store (linked to speech perception) acts as an inner ear and holds information in speech-based form (i.e. spoken words) for 1-2 seconds. Spoken words enter the store directly. Written words must first be converted into an articulatory (spoken) code before they can enter the phonological store.

The articulatory control process (linked to speech production) acts like an inner voice rehearsing information from the phonological store. It circulates information round and round like a tape loop. This is how we remember a telephone number we have just heard. As long as we keep repeating it, we can retain the information in working memory.

The articulatory control process also converts written material into an articulatory code and transfers it to the phonological store.

How is your working memory?

Have you ever wondered if you have a good working memory?  If so, take this test to find out!

IS (5 x 3) + 4 = 17? BOOK
IS (6 x 2) - 3  =  8?  HOUSE
IS (4 x 4) - 4  = 12? JACKET
IS (3 x 7) + 6 = 27? CAT
IS (4 x 8) - 2  = 31? PEN
IS (9 x 2) + 6 = 24? Water

To take this test yourself, cut out a window in a blank sheet of paper so that it exposes only one line at a time. For each line, determine whether the arithmetic is correct or not: say, out loud, “yes” or “no.” Then look at the word that follows the problem and memorize it. Move through each line quickly. After you have finished all the lines, try to recall the words in order. The number you get correct is an estimate of your working memory capacity. Very few people have a working memory as high as 6; the average is around 2 or 3.

Working Memory and the Brain

A good example of an everyday activity that uses working memory is mental arithmetic. Imagine, for example, attempting to multiply two numbers (e.g., 43, 27) spoken to you by another person, without being able to use a pen and paper or a calculator. First of all, you would need to hold the two numbers in working memory. The next step would be to use learned multiplication rules to calculate the products of successive pairs of numbers, adding to working memory the new products as you proceed. Finally, you would need to add the products held in working memory, resulting in the correct solution. To do this successfully, it is necessary to store the two numbers, and then systematically apply multiplication rules, storing the intermediate products that are generated as we proceed through the stages of the calculation. Without working memory, we would not be able to carry out this kind of complex mental activity in which we have to both keep in mind some information while processing other materials. Carrying out such mental activities is a process that requires effort and prone to errors. A minor distraction such as an unrelated thought springing to mind or an interruption by someone else is likely to result in complete loss of the stored information, and so in a failed calculation attempt. As no amount of effort will allow us to remember lost information, the only course of action is to start the calculation again. Our abilities to carry out such calculations are limited by the amount of information we have to store and process. Multiplying larger numbers (e.g., 142 and 891) “in our heads” is for most of us out of the question, even though it does not require greater mathematical knowledge than the earlier example. The reason we cannot do this is that the storage demands of the activity exceed the capacity of working memory.

In an experimental setting, an individual’s working memory capacity is reliably assessed by tasks in which the individual is required to process and store increasing amounts of information until the point at which recall errors are made. An example of such a task is reading span, in which the participant makes judgments about the semantic properties of sentences while remembering the last word of each sentence in sequence. Tasks of short-term memory, in contrast, place menial demands on processing and are often described as storage-only tasks. Verbal short-term memory is traditionally assessed using tasks that require the participant to recall a sequence of verbal information, such as digit span and word span. Visuo-spatial short-term memory tasks usually involved the retention of either spatial or visual information. For example, in the Visual Patterns Test, the participant is presented with a matrix of black and white squares and has to recall which squares were filled in. The Corsi blocks task is an example of a spatial memory task, and participants have to recall the sequence of blocks that are tapped. Individual differences in the capacity of working memory appear to have important consequences for children’s ability to acquire knowledge and new skills.

Working Memory, Reading, and the Dyslexia Connection

Children may be described as dyslexic if their reading, writing and spelling skills are significantly worse than those of their typically developing peers. Dyslexia is now understood as a problem with Verbal Working Memory, where the Phonological Loop (verbal short term memory) does not function as it should, and the verbal portion of the Central Executive, responsible for concentration, attention, planning and other executive functions, is also affected.

Some symptoms of dyslexia arise as a direct result of poor Verbal Working Memory, such as poor reading, spelling, verbal comprehension, difficulty learning sequences and problems with organisation. Children with learning difficulties may also suffer from a lack of confidence and poor self-esteem.

A full diagnostic assessment is required to discover your child's pattern of strengths and weaknesses.  This can be done by request a full psycho-educational testing from the school.  If you homeschool you can request testing from your local school district under the Child Find guidelines, you can request a referral from your child's pediatrician to a pediatric psychologist, or you can request a referral and evaluation from a neuropsychologist.

What is Reading Comprehension?
Comprehension describes the interactive process between the reader and the text. Children with similar decoding and word recognition skills may vary in their understanding of material because their comprehension skills are at different levels. Listening and reading comprehension depend on language and cognition. Listening comprehension also depends on well-developed auditory skills. Prerequisite skills are:
  • vocabulary
  • grammatical skills
  • pragmatic skills
  • meta-linguistic awareness
  • shared understanding (social; cultural)
  • attention; sequencing
  • monitoring
  • working memory
When Working Memory skills are poor, children will struggle to retain information they read or hear for long enough to integrate it with existing understanding. This is particularly important when listening to, or reading, sentences with embedded clauses. Center-embedded clauses can be really difficult because this structure creates three sections to be analysed, overloading children with poor Working Memory. As we hear or read new information, we continually recode the material into chunks, discarding irrelevant detail and retaining the gist. Working Memory is crucial for this level of processing and enables us to manage longer texts. Working Memory is crucial for generating inferences because the reader needs to keep in mind a representation of the relevant section of text, while conducting searches for information, either in long term memory or other places in the text, before checking that the inference makes sense. Working Memory is also crucial for monitoring that incoming information makes sense. Children need to notice words they don't understand as well as contradictions and anomalies. Strategies to clarify information they don't fully understand may involve looking back to check that a word has been read correctly, or formulating and asking clarifying questions, all of which place demands on Working Memory.

Working Memory and Math (Dyscalculia)

It was found that the children in the dyscalculia and maths anxiety groups showed different types of working memory impairment. The dyscalculia group, when compared to the typically developing group, performed worse on the visual-spatial working memory task. This agreed with previous research which showed a link between developmental dyscalculia and poor visual-spatial working memory ability3. The maths anxiety group, on the other hand, were more impaired in verbal working memory than the dyscalculia group. The maths anxiety group was also impaired in visual-spatial tasks but only when a higher working memory load was used (i.e. there were a large number of objects to be memorized). This finding supports the idea that anxiety may use up working memory resources which leads to poor maths performance4.

Working Memory and General Academic Performance 

Let’s say a child, Margaret, is presented with a mental math calculation such as, “find the sum of 2, 5, and 10”. She must remember all of numbers that need to be added, hold that information in mind while adding the numbers and ignoring distractions in her environment, and then produce the sum of 17. Children with poor working memory like Margaret might miss the middle number and produce a sum of 12. For reading comprehension of a passage, Margaret would need to read each sentence and hold them in mind while also making sense of their meaning. She would need to simultaneously process and store the information in the passage over a short time period. Common failures of working memory during academic tasks are reflected in skipping letters or words, blending together different words or sentences, and losing track of sentences or numbers (Holmes et al., 2010). All these working memory related failures result in Margaret being unable to correctly calculate a math problem or make sense of a reading passage.

It is estimated that 80% of children with poor working memory struggle with math, reading, or both (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008). Further, low achievers are three times more likely and students with special educational needs are six times more likely to have low working memory compared to typical learners (Holmes et al., 2010). What this tells us is that the majority of students that perform poorly in school or that require additional support have working memory deficits. It is these kids who become overloaded during regular classroom activities, such as those involving multi-step instructions, and miss important learning opportunities (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008). It is these children with low working memory that we find staring out the window with their minds wandering (Kane et al., 2007) when tasks get too tough and working memory gets overloaded.

Working Memory Training...Real or Hype?
Working memory training information is ALL over the place on the internet.  There are a TON of programs on how to increase working memory.  Sadly, there is nothing that can really help with poor working memory. There has been research showing memory training is more helpful in reading versus math.  There has been no research showing memory training helps overall cognitive ability.  You can do programs training working memory but the effects have been shown to be short term and with the high cost of the programs it just is not worth pursuing.

Sign of Working Memory Deficits

If your child exhibits 3 or more of these behaviors in this checklist there may be some cause for concern:
  • A need to re-read text
  • Test anxiety, especially on multiple choice tests
  • A need for more time and repetition
  • Inconsistent performance
  • Lack of focus and attention deficit disorders
  • Is easily distracted when working on or doing something that is not highly interesting.
  • Has trouble waiting his/her turn, for example in a conversation or when waiting in line to get help.
  • Struggles with reading comprehension and has to read through texts repeatedly to understand.
  • Struggles with problem solving that require holding information in mind, for example mental math calculations.
  • Is inconsistent in remembering math facts.
  • Struggles with completing tasks, especially multiple step tasks.
  • Has difficulty remembering long instruction given in several steps, for example following recipes, directions or school/work assignments.
  • Struggles to understand the context in a story or a conversation.
  • Has difficulties when planning and organizing something that needs to be done in separate steps.
  • Has difficulty staying focused during cognitive demanding tasks but attends well when cognitively demands are minimal.
  • Has difficulty integrating new information with prior knowledge.
  • When called on, forgets what he/she was planning to say.
  • Has difficulty taking notes and listening at the same time.

Several of these working memory-specific symptoms are associated with multiple learning diagnoses, and indication of how critical working memory is to many learning abilities.

Learning Efficiency
Academic success is dependent on a number of skills working at a high level, many of which involve working memory: for instance, being able to retain information in class, reading with comprehension, and attention stamina.

Attention Deficits
Poor working memory skills impacts attention because if students cannot hold information as it is coming at them, it is harder to engage. These children tend to be more easily distracted and are often diagnosed as having inattentive ADD.

Reading and Dyslexia
Several of the symptoms above impact reading — both in learning to decode, and in reading efficiency for comprehension. Most of the time in reading though, the true difficulty is phonological awareness. An inability to retain text while reading more often not due to inefficient and exhausting decoding, not working memory problems.

Testing for Working Memory

One of the most common tests used to determine working memory capacity is the WISC V (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children®-Fifth Edition).  This test has a whole subsection for Working Memory. 

Another test that may be used is the WAIS IV (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale®- Fourth Edition).  This test also has a subsection for Working Memory testing.

Both tests are highly recognized and work well in measuring Working Memory. 

Working Memory Accommodations and Modifications

Ask the student to verbalize their steps in completing tasks they often struggle to complete. This can provide important information about where the breakdown is occurring and what supports are likely to work best. 
• Evaluate the working memory demands of learning activities. A student with working memory difficulties will need more support as tasks get longer, become more complex, have unfamiliar content or demand more mental processing. 

• Break tasks into smaller chunks. One task at a time is best, if possible. 
• Reduce the amount of material the student is expected to complete. 
• Keep new information or instructions brief and to the point, and repeat in concise fashion for the student, as needed. 
• Provide written directions for reference. 
• Simplify the amount of mental processing required by providing several oral “clues” for a problem and writing key words for each clue on the board or interactive whiteboard. This way the student does not have to hold all of the information in mind at once. 
• Increase the meaningfulness of the material by providing examples students can relate to. 
• Provide information in multiple ways: speak it, show it, and create opportunities to physically work with it or model it. 
• Develop routines, such as specific procedures for turning in completed assignments. Once a routine is practiced repeatedly, it becomes automatic and reduces the working memory demand.

• Be prepared to repeat information. 
• Use visual reminders of the steps needed to complete a task. 
• Provide opportunities to repeat the task. 
• Encourage practice to increase the amount of information encoded into memory. 
• Teach students to practice in short sessions, repeatedly throughout the day. Spaced practice is more effective than massed practice. Have students practice new skills or information in short sessions over the course of the day rather than in one long session. For example, give the student a set of key facts to review for a few minutes two or three times during the school day, and encourage them to review again at home both at night and in the morning. 

• Use advance organizers and teach students how to use them. For example, KWL (What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I Learned) is a graphic organizer that helps students focus on what is to be learned. This tool activates prior knowledge, helps generate questions to explore and then assists students to connect what they learn to what they already know. 

• Teach one strategy at a time in brief, focused sessions. 
• Teach students when, where, why and how to use the strategy
• Review and activate prior knowledge. 
• Be overt and explicit. 
• Model and think aloud. 
• Have skilled students model steps.
• Encourage use and practice. 
• Evaluate and recognize effort and success. 
• Encourage self-monitoring. 
• Promote transfer to other situations, times, activities and groups.

• Use visual posters, e.g. of multiplication tables. 
• Create posters of commonly used words. 
• Provide instructions in written form – could be a handout, whiteboard, or simply a sticky note. 
• Provide a key word outline to refer to while you are teaching. 
• Encourage the use of checklists for multi-step tasks (e.g., steps for editing written work, timelines for assignments). 
• Encourage students to make lists of reminders regularly. 
• Use graphic organizers to teach new concepts and information. When the student can picture how the ideas are interrelated, they can be stored and retrieved more easily. 
• Consider educational technology that reduces the demand on working memory, such as calculators, word processors, spell-check devices, grammar-check devices, and voice dictation and text readers. 
• Use rhymes, songs, movements and patterns, such as ’30 days hath September’ rhyme for remembering the number of days in each calendar month. Music and physical routines linked to fact learning can help students memorize faster and act as a cue for retrieving specific information. 

• Stop at least two times per lesson and request a quick summary from students – “what have we learned so far?” – followed by quick notes on the board. Research overwhelmingly indicates that at least 40% of total learning time needs to be spent reviewing new material. 
• Request students to paraphrase, or have another student paraphrase verbally delivered directions. Research has repeatedly shown that youth are more likely to “hear” and “remember” if they hear their own voice or a peer’s voice. 
• Allow time for rehearsal and processing. 
• Allow extra time for the student to retrieve information. These students benefit from advance warning that they will be asked a question. 
• Avoid open-ended questions. 

• Active participation with the material such as repeatedly hearing it, seeing it and moving it, holds the information in working memory so it can move to long-term memory. Let the students move around, use hands-on material and put information on file cards so they can be manipulated. 
• Wherever possible, use games such as Jeopardy® and Scrabble®, drama and art to reinforce concepts. 

• Physical coding, such as consistent colors for different subject areas, can act as triggers to help students remember information. o Try coding when teaching new concepts: when teaching sentence structure nouns are always red, verbs are always green etc. o Spelling – highlight difficult parts of new words. 
• Vocabulary – teach new words in categories or families and color code the categories. o Encourage the use of colored pens or highlighters (remember, yellow is the LEAST effective). 

• Try to get the students to link new information to prior knowledge – encourage drawing, writing and verbal reflection. The use metaphors, analogies, imagery or induced imagery (where the image is generated by the individual, rather than given to them) can help. 
• Start each lesson with a quick review of the previous lesson – always write down key words as the students recall information to model “trigger words”. 
• End each lesson with a summary of what was learned. 

• Teach students to listen for key words. Post the words in the classroom and frequently use them as cues while you teach. 
• Often students with working memory difficulties also exhibit word and information retrieval difficulties. They frequently experience the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, or may produce the wrong details within the correct concept. The student may need additional time to retrieve details when answering a question. Cues may be necessary to help them focus on the correct bit of information or word. 

• Allow extra time, or reduce the number of questions. 
• Consider requiring recognition vs. recall. 
• Teach students to scan the test and plan their time allocation. 
• For essay tests, teach students to create an outline, write key words in point form and then expand on the key words and ideas. 
• Where possible, allow students to use reference sheets during tests (e.g., math formula, chronologies of events), or encourage students to create reference sheets at home, to rehearse the information frequently and then to rewrite the information at the beginning of the exam before attempting to answer the questions. 
• A student with difficulties sustaining working memory often needs frequent short breaks. Breaks typically only need to be one or two minutes in duration. Observing when the student’s ability to focus begins to wane will help determine the optimal time for a break. 
• Use technology such as word processors, speech-to-text, and text-to-speech programs to reduce working memory demand, and allow for additional time to complete tasks. 

• Encourage self-reflection for yourself and the student. What worked for me? What could I do next time? If this strategy worked for this task, could I use it anywhere else? 
• Many software programs and applications can provide rehearsal in an entertaining fashion and are often less demanding of working memory.

Wrap Up

I hope this article has been helpful.  Please click on the embedded links for source material.  I know this has helped me understand the importance of Working Memory and I hoped it helped you do the same.  Please leave any questions or comments below.