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Confused student

Working through
Working-Memory Difficulties

Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information over short periods of time. This differs from short-term memory, which does not require manipulation or action on information while it is held in memory.We’ve all been there, trying to engage students in learning, hoping that they understand and remember the directions given to them, and then squirrel! We’ve missed the seemingly small window to hold their attention, and they become distracted by something or someone else. It is frustrating when this happens in the classroom, knowing you’ll need to repeat directions and spend time redirecting students to the task at hand, but it is also worth understanding these challenges from the student’s perspective, as well as what helps them and what doesn’t.

Close to 70 percent of students who have attention difficulties and learning disabilities also have a weakness in working memory. Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information over short periods of time. This differs from short-term memory, which does not require manipulation or action on information while it is held in memory. For instance, if you verbally give a list of numbers and ask students to repeat them in reverse order, that would require working memory skills since the task is more than simply remembering the numbers. Likewise, in the classroom, when the teacher gives verbal directions and asks students to do a number of tasks, working memory is required to remember the tasks and also to act on that information and carry out the direction. Many times, for this reason, students with attention and learning difficulties have trouble with multi-step oral instructions.

For reference, an average adult can handle six to seven units of information in working memory. These units may be comprised of information chunked together, such as a three-digit area code. An average 15-year-old may hold four to five units of information in working memory, and an average four-year-old may only hold two units of information. Think about the age of the students you teach in comparison to this, and now think if that’s the average, what would working memory look like for a student who struggles with working memory at that age? It could be that a teenage student with these challenges can only hold two units of information in working memory while peers can hold twice as much information. When that student asks you to repeat the directions or only follows the first or last step of the verbal instructions, it is frustrating because you may automatically think that “they’re not paying attention.” But this may actually result from a challenge with working memory.

As much as we’d love to think that asking a student, “What did I just say?” will be the magic key to bringing that information back, that’s just not the case.The other key point with working memory is that once that information is gone from a student’s working memory, the brain has no way of retrieving that information. As much as we’d love to think that asking a student, “What did I just say?” will be the magic key to bringing that information back, that’s just not the case. The teacher needs to determine whether the student does not recall instructions due to inattention/distraction or due to problems with working memory. Rather than becoming frustrated with students for something outside of their control, incorporate some working memory strategies that will help students know what they should be doing.

One strategy is to reduce the working memory load for all students to make it manageable for those students with challenges. Rather than giving four or five verbal directions at once, give one or two with time to complete those tasks before adding the rest of the directions.

Reinforcing verbal directions with visuals is also extremely helpful for students so that they don’t have to rely on memory to complete the different steps. Since there is no way for the brain to bring back information once it has left working memory, students will know that the steps will always be written for them, and you can have them refer to those cues to know what to do next rather than having to repeat yourself.

Another strategy is to have students repeat verbal directions after you have said them. Rehearsing, or repeating, the steps multiple times helps to keep the information in their memory while they perform each task, although visual reinforcement remains recommended. Students could repeat the directions as an entire group, but students with working memory difficulties should repeat the steps more times, even quietly whispering them to themselves.

You can also encourage students to visualize the information and have them write it down or draw a picture to help them remember the task. For example, if asking a student to take out a pencil and paper, write their name at the top, and complete problems one to ten on page 50, have the students describe their visual image, what it will look like when they complete the directions, and what will be on the paper once they follow the directions. This reinforces the steps given verbally and helps to keep the directions in working memory while the student works. This may get to the point where once students take a moment or two to visualize the steps and what they will do, they will not need the visual reminders. Some students may still need the visuals to complete multiple steps no matter how much they visualize.

Remember that these difficulties are frustrating for the student as well as being frustrating for you as the teacher.Finally, remember one of the important fruits of the Spirit: patience. Be patient with students who ask you to repeat what you said. It is easy to assume that if that student was “paying attention,” they would have remembered the information, and in some cases, this may be true. Given how common working memory struggles are for students with attention difficulties though, be open to repeating the information for the students without penalty or making them feel they’re doing something wrong when they cannot remember. Remember that these difficulties are frustrating for the student as well as being frustrating for you as the teacher.

At this point, a natural question is “How can I improve working memory for my students?” If you Google that question, you will find plenty of suggestions and plenty of programs and technology that claim to improve working memory. However, buyer beware! While some research shows that these programs may work for some students, other research indicates that the benefits are short-lived and do not generalize to academic skills and settings outside of the training. Overall, research on long-term improvement of working memory seems inconclusive. Most scholars in the field of learning disabilities do not promote trying to improve working memory, but they suggest focusing on incorporating strategies to help students be successful with working memory skills.

Teachers need to understand the difficulties caused by working memory issues and their prevalence among students with attention difficulties and learning disabilities. It takes this understanding to increase patience with students who forget directions and can’t repeat back what you just said. Rather than losing patience and adding to the frustration they often feel, try implementing some of these strategies to help support these students so that they can be successful with classroom tasks, despite some of their areas of difficulty.

LSEM is always available to help answer questions about students with learning needs and to support your ministry with students and families. Please visit our website at https://luthsped.org or email lsem@luthsped.org to let us know how we can help!

Kara Bratton is Special Education Director at Lutheran Special Education Ministries. She is a regular columnist for Shaping the Future. Kara has also done several LEA webinars, which are accessible in the Resources > Archived Webinars tabs at www.lea.org.

Photos © iStock/Sturti, ViktorCap, Cineberg