Thinking Skills: Working Memory


The following definition is derived directly from the Working Memory executive function. This Thinking Skill focuses on memory-in-action — the ability to remember and use relevant information while in the middle of an activity. For example, a student is using his Working Memory skills when he remembers all of the steps to solving a math word problem. Another example of Working Memory in use is when a student recalls multiple main ideas of a passage she read in order to write a summary.

Working Memory skills are very important for academic success. Students use their working memory skills continuously when they are reading as they decode words, make sense of the context, and make connections based on their own lives. They also use working memory skills when working on tasks that involve multiple steps, like a lab experiment in science class, or working on a social studies research paper.

Click here for more Working Memory Fundamentals.

Working Memory Skills in the Classroom

Working Memory skills are essential in helping students meet with success in the classroom. The following list outlines some common classroom tasks that require the use of Working Memory skills:

  • Following directions (especially those with multiple steps): Following directions requires that students are able to keep multiple pieces of information in mind at the same time. If the directions have multiple steps, students also need to be able to keep track of the correct sequence of activities while trying to remain focused on the overall task.


  • Taking notes and recording assignments: Notetaking involves processing a lot of information at once. Students need to listen to what the speaker is saying, look at any visuals provided by the speaker, and transfer these ideas into writing that makes sense to them. This is often a continuous process and students have to use working memory skills in order to follow along successfully.


  • Identifying main ideas in text: In order to determine the main ideas of a text, students need to keep track of individual details and determine what all of those details have in common. This, again, involves processing multiple pieces of information at once.


  • Using classroom materials and resources when needed: Students use working memory skills when they think to utilize classroom resources to aid them in a task. For example, when encountering an unfamiliar word in a social studies textbook, a student might think to look in the glossary or use a classroom dictionary to look up the word and then continue reading. Similarly, a student might think to keep going back to an essay rubric while she writes in order to make sure she is following the guidelines correctly.


Teaching Working Memory Skills with Digital Media

Games and technologies can be very useful in developing Working Memory skills. For example, reading apps can help students use Working Memory skills to keep track of main ideas and details as they read, which aids in comprehension. Digital media can also help develop working memory skills by providing opportunities to apply learned strategies in new situations. When confronted with new technology, children often use strategies that they have learned from operating familiar technology. For example, when being introduced to a video iPod, they might try pushing buttons that look familar to them because they resemble buttons they have seen on their cell phone.

Within games, there are many requirements to keep current information “in mind” while making a game move. Children frequently need to recall successful activities that they engaged earlier in video games and then reapply them in a new situation or at a different level. Learn more about how game play can help improve Working Memory skills.

Check out our classroom guides for information on how to use specific games and digital technologies to teach Working Memory skills.

Alternative Learning Concerns & Working Memory

Many Alternative Learners struggle to employ Working Memory skills in a variety of classroom tasks. These students need help identifying when they are having working memory problems, as well as practice using different working memory strategies to aid their classroom performance. Our Classroom Guides provide teachers with ideas on how to integrate digital media into instruction in a meaningful and fun way that can help Alternative Learners work on their Working Memory skills.

ADHD & Working Memory

Many students with ADHD typically struggle with tasks requiring them to use Working Memory skills. Because these students also have a difficult time focusing during instruction, they often have trouble recalling information that they learned previously. Many of these students also have trouble keeping track of several different pieces of information at once. When working on a group activity, for example, students with ADHD might miss certain directions or skip important steps in the process without realizing it.They also might have trouble communicating questions they might have because they are struggling to process information.

The nature of a lot of digital media makes it a great tool for teachers to use with students diagnosed with ADHD and other attention issues. Many video games and apps require useers to be actively engaged, paying attention to several different pieces of information at the same time. They are often sequential, meaning students have to follow steps carefully if they want to succeed. Using these technologies in the classroom to teach academic content can be very motivational for students with attention difficulties and can help them practice Working Memory skills.


LD & Working Memory

Students with Learning Disabilities can exhibit struggles with Working Memory. All students learn differently, and the dificulties faced by students with LD will vary based on their individual profiles. Some students might have trouble keeping track of different steps in a math problem. Others might struggle to follow directions that require more than one step. Others might have trouble understanding what they read because they only retained certain parts of the text.

Incorporating digital media in the classroom provides many opportunities for differentiation in order to meet the needs of all students, and to help build Working Memory skills. Our Classroom Guides are great tools to use for teachers of students with Learning Disabilities because they are adaptable, meaning teachers can decide how best to use them based on the individual needs of the students.

Educators Guide to the Executive-Functioning Skill of  Working Memory

Working Memory involves the ability to remember something and to perform an activity using this memory.  This Thinking Skill allows us to maintain information in mind that we can use for learning, reasoning, or producing a result.  Working memory may invoke visual or verbal processes such as remembering to shut off the television in addition to gathering your coat, keys, and bag before leaving the house on a trip.   Memory is very important in school for taking notes, following multi-step directions, and doing mathematical calculations in your head.  Working Memory involves storing information temporarily and using that information in problem solving, motor activities, and self-control.

Working memory plays an important role in reading comprehension and, for younger children, the development of decoding skills to create reading fluency.  It is a measure of the capacity to hold information in mind to complete tasks and remembering the rules within a game or task. Individuals often use rehearsal strategies such as repeating things in order to buffet their memory strategy skills.

How can I tell if a student is having trouble with Working Memory?

These descriptions might help you identify a student struggling with Working Memory in the classroom.  In general, look for difficulty in remembering things and being absentminded.  Students who always have difficulty with multi-step directions and using  previous experiences of learning in new situations may experience difficulty with Working Memory.  As with all of the Thinking Skills in the Playing Smarter curriculum, struggles with Working Memory are likely to co-occur in most students with other areas of weakness in thinking skills.

All Students:

  • Having difficulty following multi-step directions
  • Frequently needing to be redirected and then forgetting what they were supposed to do
  • Having good ideas but being unable to keep them in mind long enough to put down on paper
  • Forgetting to take things back and forth from school
  • Forgetting to return permission slips needed for class trips and activities

Particularly Important for Elementary Students:

  • Remembering only the first and last things in a series of directions
  • Having difficulty with reading comprehension
  • Speaking out of turn almost as if they are afraid they will forget what they wanted to say
  • Having difficulty remembering what they wanted to write

Particularly Important for Middle School Students:

  • Reporting that they knew the material when studying the night before but forgetting it on a test the next day
  • Having problems writing down entire homework assignments in a timely fashion
  • Displaying difficulty listening and taking notes at the same time
  • Having problems doing minor calculations in their heads

When do students use Working-Memory skills at school?

These are common school-based situations where the thinking skill Working Memory is needed.  The best way for students to learn the skill of Working Memory is to practice it while engaged in daily activities.  Take the time to recognize these common situations and when you can encourage your students to employ and improve their Working Memory skills.

  • When following directions
  • When recording and recalling homework assignments
  • When taking notes in class
  • When computing basic calculations
  • When taking home and returning important forms, permission slips, report cards, etc.
  • When recalling information that was studied for a quiz or test

How can I help my students practice their Working-Memory skills in the classroom?

  • Simplify directions as much as possible.  The students will be more likely to recall short, simple, and direct instructions.  For example, saying, “When you have finished those 2 math worksheets, you may play one of the board games for 20 minutes,” is much more direct and simple than saying, “When you finish your work you can play.”
  • Use visual reminders such as drawing, photographs, or colorful pictures for sequential tasks.  These visual reminders may serve to enhance working memory.  For example, taking photographs of the students’ backpack, coat, books, and homework folder and then posting these pictures in their cubby or locker may help them to remember the sequential, end-of-school-day series of steps in preparing to go home.
  • Encourage the students to seek assistance from others.  Emphasize to the students that it is acceptable to ask the teacher to repeat instructions or to ask a classmate to borrow his notes.  
  • Allow extra time for the students to complete a task.  The students may simply need more time to process and rehearse information.  Their recognition of what they have learned is often better than their ability to recall information independently.  By presenting materials at a slower pace, using cues, and encouraging repetition, you can help them to have a more efficient retrieval of information.
  • Practice reading comprehension.  Read the same material as the students and then have a brief discussion about it.  This may help to increase the students’ focus and stretch their memory as an active component of working-memory skills.

What tips can I give my students to help them improve their Working Memory skills?

  • Use visual reminders so that you have less to remember and keep in your head.
  • Use a cellphone, iPod, or digital watch to set reminders for yourself.
  • Learn to chunk items by trying to remember two or more things as one item. You can often do this by repeatedly doing these activities together, so that three actions become one.  For example, every morning you could brush your teeth, wash your face, and comb your hair, so that eventually these become one action that you do in front of the mirror.
  • Repeat what you have heard in your head a few times such as a new name or phone number and, at the same time, add a visual image or picture in your head of what you are thinking about.  For example, if you meet a new person you might think, “Sammy Smith with brown eyes,” while having an image in your head about this.

Classroom Guides for Working Memory

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