WORKING MEMORY: What it is and how you can Support it in the Classroom

Here’s the VIDEO version in case you prefer to see it or listen to it rather than read….like me half the time!

What is working memory?

This is something I always think I know, but then can’t give the best definition in my head when it comes up.

Or can’t come up with good accommodations off the top of the head when trying to help a student.

So when I came to a new school recently and this topic was coming up from time to time pertaining to a couple students, I took this as an opportunity to focus on what I know about working memory, do some more research, and do a training for a group of teachers who were working with students with high needs in this area. I wanted to get this out in the atmosphere and not just have it sitting on my computer, so here’s the post!

What is Working Memory? 

There are 3 types of memory that I am considering each day in the classroom (or the Zoom!). 

They are:

  • Long-term
  • Short-term
  • Working memory

Or in classroom terms they can be seen as:  

  • Enduring Understandings
  • Cramming for a test
  • Using new information to do a task

The key distinction between short-term and Working Memory being that Working Memory means that you have to not only retain it for a short time, but also USE that new information to do tasks, etc.

This is an image of the definition of working memory. It says "Trying to hold on to information and work with it at the same time".

Example of Working Memory

Okay, so try to remember these numbers, look away and repeat them:  4, 6, 2, 7, 5

That’s short term memory.

Now take look at the numbers again, look away, and try to add them up.

Were you able to do it? 

I tried it and it wasn’t easy.

How might Working Memory needs show up in the classroom?

This is an image with six bulletpoints that describe ways that working memory concerns show up in the classroom. They are as follows: Holding onto new information while trying to connect to what you know Following multi-step directions Trying to remember the question when giving an answer Forgetting what you are doing when computer is loading slowly Notetaking: keeping what the teacher is saying in your head as you write it down Difficulty remembering what the teacher said when they helped them

How to Support Students with Working Memory

There are some go-to accommodations and strategies that I have found to be a big help for students with difficulties with working memory.

This is an image with 9 accommodations to support students with working memory areas of need. They are as follows: Allow Breaks (i.e. through use of Break Pass) Audio books Extra Time on Tasks Use VISUALS to help with working memory Step by Step Instructions Check for Understanding Use of Calculator (or multiplication chart) Up to 25% Extra Time on tests (e.g. IB exams)

AUDIO BOOKS can help by changing the input method and allowing the strenuous task of decoding to be taken out of the picture and free the student up to use the knowledge to make meaning and use this new knowledge.

STEP BY STEP INSTRUCTIONS can be in typed in the Learning Management System (i.e. Moodle, ManageBac, Canvas, etc.), or on the board, or just verbal.

CALCULATOR so they don’t get caught up working on basic facts when doing a word problem or something totally different than the arithmetic.

The more we can free up their cognitive load, the more successful they can potentially be

HELPING THE STUDENTS FIGHT LEARNED HELPLESSNESS is important as sometimes when we start working with a student we find that they are quick to give up, and if we are lucky, quick to ask for help (as opposed to not engaging at all). 

So it’s important to help the students take ownership of their present levels of performance, their goals, and their accommodations and in doing that we can help the students understand where they are going this year, what they need to get there, their areas of need, and maybe most importantly, their strengths.

STRENGTH-based approach

Combining using their identified strengths with accommodations that we have decided to use can be a huge help and get the student towards taking ownership of their area of need with working memory, and focusing on what they can do well in the class


There are times when you may feel like the student wasn’t paying attention, or was being flippant, or any sort of thing, but you often have to give them the the benefit of the doubt.

I read something early on in my career when I was at school learning and how to teach school and it has stuck with me.  It’s as follows, with a little remix on my part:

Image of a quote from Beckett Haight, remixed I think, that says that telling a person who struggles with working memory to just focus more is like telling a person who is hard of hearing to just listen a little harder

We need to give them the tools and accommodations to gain the most access.

Multi-modal Instruction (i.e. visual, tactile, etc.)

We need to give students multiple access points to the curriculum and the activities. This has become best practice with UDL, and all that, but is especially salient when working with students with working memory difficulties as some more traditional didactic approaches may not be enough to support them fully as they exert effort to piece everything together.


Some random final thoughts based on my experiences include, but are not limited to:

You can’t get angry or frustrated when small things happen in the day to day and you think a student is playing games, or being defiant, or not paying attention.  It helps to assume good intent on their part and be cognizant of the area of need and try to support it.

It’s our job to use the IEP accommodations ), general scaffolding for all students, and work with their IEP goals, or set small short-term goals just for your class with the student and help them reach them.

Also some students may feel like they can’t do anything right, or that they have Dyslexia, or ADHD, or other things, but don’t realize it could be largely due to a working memory deficit. The key is to help them use their strengths, accommodations and to self-advocate!

Next time you have a student who may seem to be lost, or distracted, or easily frustrated, maybe consider Working Memory challenges and try supports in that area and see if it can help.

I would be curious to hear your thoughts about working memoery, your experiences, and anything you have done differently that would help this blog ‘community’ get a deeper knowledge of what working memory is and how we can support students with working memory challenges or disabilities.

Here’s a link to the (FREE) presentation I gave in case you want to download it and remix it:(


2 thoughts on “WORKING MEMORY: What it is and how you can Support it in the Classroom

    1. Hey, thanks for the comment! Yeah, I struggle with it a bit, but for me I think it’s more connected to my ADHD. I have so many thoughts floating through my head I sometimes lose track. Lots of post-its!

      Please throw the link on the blog. That would be great. I have to check your blog out too, it’s been a minute since I’ve seen it.

      Liked by 1 person

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