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What is Working Memory – Why is it Important?

Working memory is connected with the coinciding storage and processing of transitory information. Various components of working memory are connected with different functions. These components are responsible for comprehension, attention, retaining and retrieving information. Functions such as maintaining orientation in space, following directions or patterns and monitoring changes within the visual field over time are all carried out here. (Kibby, Michelle, Marks, Morgan, & Long, 2004). Once any information is processed, it is sent to long term memory to be stored.

Skilled readers have stronger, more efficient working memories than poor readers. This is not due to poor reading skills, rather it is because they have less working-memory capability to perform reading and non-reading tasks (Swanson, &Siegel, 2001). More than two decades of research shows a clear and distinct correlation between working memory deficits and Learning Disabilities diagnosed in children and adults (Swanson, & Siegel, 2001).

Working memory has also been found to be the most important factor in determining learning outcomes for students of every age. Its importance outweighs IQ and phonological skills in learning success.

Since one in ten students has poor working memories, a good number of students are unable to reach their learning and social competency potentials. Working memory is a fundamental cognitive tool needed to accomplish a multitude of tasks. It is particularly important in reading and math. It is the basis of classroom learning: beginning with copying from the blackboard and following directions to more complicated tasks like reading comprehension, mental math, and mathematical word problems.

A majority of students with learning challenges demonstrate visual-spatial and verbal working memory difficulties. This compromises their ability to process and store information effectively resulting in less than optimal performance. Unless they receive assistance to improve their working memory these students will not perform as well as their peers.

With such a compelling correlation between the working memory and the learning disabilities, it is clear that schools must improve instructional methods which enhance a student’s effectiveness in maintaining and manipulating more information. This can be attained through a focus on well designed, research-based instruction, which enhance “on-task behavior”. Strategies such as mnemonics, keywords have been shown to be very effective in decreasing the strain on the working memory. This assists the student’s ability to more easily retrieve already stored information and place their attention on processing incoming information. The use of positive feedback, scaffolding, and Cogmed can improve the proficiency of the working memory and profoundly affect the person’s overall achievement.

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