Working Memory: What is It and How Do I Get More?

Schoolboy Struggling with Math ProblemsWorking memory is used for temporarily holding on to and organizing information needed to carry out complex thinking tasks such as comprehending, learning, and reasoning. Working memory is also used to store and retrieve information in long-term memory. In other words, it is an important cross-roads of memory: information goes through working memory to get stored in long-term memory and information comes through working memory for us to use in our daily lives.

Individuals with ADHD, anxiety, and mood disorders may struggle with working memory in their daily lives.  However, Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D. has said that working memory deficits may not always show up on standardized tests: because of the novelty of these short-term tasks, many individuals may perform well on tests of working memory but can still struggle with this executive skill on a daily basis.


What is the Impact of Working Memory Deficits in Life?


Rosemary Tannock, Ph.D, along with the educators and researchers at the Brain and Behavior Center in Toronto have found that students who struggle with working memory often have trouble holding events and information in mind to solve problems and guide actions. As a result, they may easily forget steps in multiple-step processes, procedures, and routines. At home, they may require reminders to complete all the steps in a morning routine they have completed for years much to the chagrin of their parents. At school, they may struggle be able to recall each of the 15 classroom rules without a visual reminder.


Working memory weaknesses may also interfere with a student’s ability to follow directions and perform complex tasks that require sequential steps. For example, teens may struggle to know how to organize their homework and get projects completed despite years of teachers and parents showing them how to do so.


Working memory weaknesses may hinder a student’s ability to independently reflect on her actions, monitor her progress, and exhibit self-awareness of her strengths and needs. Cause and effect of actions in life can be difficult for struggling students to recognize without direct guided discussion.


How Does Working Memory Impact Learning?


Research from the Brain and Behavior Center in Toronto and elsewhere shows that working memory is a strong predictor of long-term academic success.


In math, students must hold on to multiple pieces of information in order to solve multiple-step problems.

  • Recalling math facts quickly.
  • Performing multiple-step math procedures (carrying, borrowing, etc.) When adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing multiple-digit numbers, students may forget steps and make “careless errors” due to poor working memory.
  • Accurately solving math word problems by figuring out the question asked, using the relevant information, ignoring the irrelevant information, understanding the meanings of the words used to indicate which math computations to use, completing those computations, and then finally, checking for accuracy.
  • Using multiple-step strategies to solve complex math computations invented by the devil and his demons (also known as algebra, trig, and calculus).

My own working memory problems first showed up in math. I recall in second grade the struggles I had with carrying and borrowing: for me, it only got worse from there: algebra was a nightmare and still today, friends and family know better than to ask me to “split the check” when we go out to eat.


Working memory problems can cause problems when students are reading for specific purposes.

  • Recognizing cause/effect
  • Comparing/contrasting.
  • Recognizing story structure (setting, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution).
  • Recognizing literary and rhetorical devices (themes, allegory, foreshadowing, etc.)All of these require holding on to information while reading in the short-term in order to be efficiently successful.

I see many students who struggle with ADHD who also have trouble grasping this information as they read. They often complain of needing to go back to re-read text in order to answer these questions.


When preparing written work, students must hold on to multiple facets of multifaceted information and the rules of writing.

  • The purpose of their writing when considering their goals (or the goals of the assignment) and their audience.
  • What to write including their ideas, as well as, the words, sentences, and paragraphs to use to express their ideas.
  • How to write: forming the letters, spelling the words, using proper punctuation and grammar, as well as, appropriately structuring sentences, paragraphs, and narratives.

This is why it never works out too well when students with working memory problems procrastinate on written reports. It is extremely difficult for them to accurately do all of these things on the night before the assignment is due. Because the working memory system gets overwhelmed, something falls by the wayside: early on it may be spelling or handwriting, later it may be sentence, paragraph, or narrative structure.


How Can We Help Students with Working Memory Weaknesses?

Current research shows that a student who struggles with working memory can benefit from use of external verbal and nonverbal tools while learning new multiple-step, multifaceted tasks.


  • Allow use of external verbal and nonverbal prompts for following multiple-step directions and rules in the classroom setting and at home.
  • Allow use of “cue cards” for recalling the steps in math procedures, math problem- solving, written expression, and other multiple-step tasks. A cue card is simply an index card with the steps to a multiple step process or procedure written out on it. Research on cue cards shows a student can learn the steps faster than relying on his faulty working memory and attention. Also, when using cue cards a student is less likely to ask, “What’s the next step?”
  • Allow a student to use the SQ4R procedure and law-ruled paper in order to read textbooks with a purpose: he should actively read to answer questions from the teacher’s study guide or the end of the chapter. If these questions are not available, he should change the bolded headers or bolded key words into questions as described at
  • Allow use of colored tape flags, underlining, highlighting, and a simplified approach to annotating as outlined at so a student can quickly recognize “who, what, where, why, and how” as he is reading.
  • Allow a student to use simple and highly structured graphic organizers when reading to gather information.
    • Five-column charts for listing who, what, where, why, and how in history.
    • Three-column charts in order to compare/contrast specific similarities and differences in literature, history, and science as described at
    • Fish-bone diagrams to help a student recognize cause/effect in textbooks and novels as suggested at
    • Highly structured story charts to capture key literary aspects (setting, characters, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution).
    •  Use of structured 3 column charts to capture literary and rhetorical devices when reading. The columns should be titled (1) What I read, (2) What I know about this based on context, and (3) What I can infer.
  • When writing sentences and paragraphs, a student can benefit from using a word bank. It may be especially helpful if the word bank is set up so that a student can easily identify nouns, verbs, modifiers, transition words, and other key parts of speech. Without this designation, his working memory may be overwhelmed and a student may not benefit from the task.
  • A student can benefit from using a checklist of key action steps for preparing written sentences, paragraphs, reports and essays as described at
  • Allow a student to use personalized self-monitoring checklists to review his work and tests before turning them in. His personal checklists should be made up of common mistakes he tends to make on assignments and tests. He should think about and use his personal checklist the last thing before turning in his assignments or tests.

Parents and teachers can phase out reminders, cues, and checklists as a student internalizes a specific sequence of steps.

Need Help Applying These Concepts?

Student Success and College Success include research-based cognitive behavioral teaching to help students develop and apply the skills “learn how to learn” to be successful at these tasks. Call 817.421.8780 to see how Dr. Davenport can help your student experience improved working memory.


© 2010-2014, Monte W. Davenport, Ph.D.