Working Memory, Processing Speed, and Taking Notes: The Kitchen Sink

Many parents and teachers know a child who seems incapable of taking notes in class. As hard as the student might try, their notes are a jumbled mess; incomplete, disorganized and often useless for learning. It may well be that these children have deficits with both working memory and processing speed, which can make it nearly impossible to keep up with the pace of a typical classroom lecture. Note taking requires students to keep information in mind long enough to remember it and then write it down quickly enough to make a permanent record of it.

Working memory is limited by the amount of information that can be held in mind and by the amount of time it is available to be encoded or processed before it decays. Therefore, it is important to be able to be able to process this information quickly.

Think about working memory and processing speed being related like a faucet, a sink, and a drain with a few pipes leading from it. The flow of the faucet represents how quickly water gets into the sink (or the rate of input of processing information). The sink represents how much water/information can be held (size of working-memory storage). The drain has two functions. One impacts how quickly the water is lost (length of time memory is retained before lost or transferred), while the other determines how quickly and effectively water is transferred so it is not lost.

In reality, there is no comparison between the brain and a plumbing system. The brain is clearly more complicated. We may never fully know how it works.

Recent neuroscience suggests that processing speed is related to the quickness of neural transmissions between areas of the brain required to solve problems. Quick neural processing helps to control attention and block distractions and frees up more cognitive resources for working memory so that one can remember a bit more for a bit longer time. It’s like taking all the frozen groceries in from the car on a scalding summer day in one quick trip. There is less time for things to melt and more time to put things away in an organized manner.

So how do plumbing and food shopping metaphors help kids with weak working memory and slow processing speed take notes? A larger spigot on a faucet allows more water to fill the sink quickly, while a bigger sink holds more water. The use of bigger and sturdier shopping bags could allow a shopper to carry a bit more at any one time. Similarly, having a larger capacity to hold onto information is helpful for note taking. Recording a lecture or taking pictures of notes on the chalkboard provides a larger store for memory. Gathering and encoding information more quickly by becoming an expert typist or starting with an outline of teacher notes makes processing of information more manageable.

While we can also work on improving capacities for working memory, processing speed, and note-taking these are long-term interventions and are not likely to be sufficient. Most importantly, we need to identify and understand the needs of kids who have the double whammy of poor skills in working memory and slow processing speed. Parents and educators can help these kids by implementing effective accommodations and teaching them to use technologies that can support these weak cognitive skills.

Here are some resources for improving working memory, processing speed, and taking notes:

The Best Technologies to Benefit Kids with Special Needs: Notability

Improving School Skills: Tips for Taking Notes

What Can Kids Do to Improve Working Memory?

For Kids and Teens: Easy Ways to Improve Working Memory

Help a Child with Slow Processing Speed Succeed at School and Work

Explaining Slow Processing Speed to a Child



Featured image: Flickr user Phil Roeder

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