Working Memory and Learning


Memory is very important in general life including school life. It plays an important role in processing information, storage, and retrieval of the information stored. In school, students are presented with new information and the working memory plays an important role in the processing and retention of this information. The memory alone cannot be used in school to gauge student performance. Poor working memory has been linked with poor performance in the learning environment. Animal studies have revealed that different parts of the prefrontal cortex itself are involved in the specific working memory processes. Learning can be perceived to be the process through which new information is taken in, held, and even retrieved.

Students with low working memory may perform poorly in learning in terms of processing the information presented, and more so when the working memory is overloaded. Rehearsal of information has been used to have this information entered into the long-term memory, and this can help to reduce the overloading of the working memory for those students with low working memory. Although, according to Gathercole & Tracy, (n.d).; {qtd. in Bald, 2009} children do not ‘typically’ rehearse materials before the age of seven and eight, songs and other carefully designed activities have been used to have rehearsal introduced at an earlier age. It is important to design a curriculum such that simple items in the curriculum subjects are presented to pupils or students before complex items. There has been found a linkage between the working memory and the IQ items that involve holding and manipulation of information items such as shapes and numbers. The learning environment is characteristic of the complex as well as multiple tasks and because the working memory is Important to ensure students or children excel in these tasks; teachers need to identify individual needs and develop a curriculum that seeks to cater to the needs. For example, teachers can design tasks that will require every student to answer questions, and then they can identify who is not able to do what.


Memory is very important in the recollection of our past events and for learning. Moreover, people who are important to us would be forgotten us and there would be no expectation of the future. People would not be able to register change over time because they would live in a condition termed by Baddeley as “permanent present” such as a person who has suffered memory loss from conditions or illnesses such as encephalitis (Glenda, n.d.). Life would also be difficult, for example, people would not easily remember even places like home, schools, and hospitals e.t.c. Learning would also be difficult because remembering previous lessons and things like plots for stories would be difficult. Therefore learning does not become enjoyable or even possible. Although memory is very important in learning days at school, performance cannot be only be gauged on the ability to remember. Other factors that may influence performance include the ability to retrieve information from what has been presented to them during learning. The main controller or central executive is the part of memory that interprets the information newly presented to it and integrates this information with the existing information already stored in the long-term memory (Baddeley, 1996; qtd. in Glenda, (n.d).). Working memory helps individuals to work on what they are working on at a particular time.

Memory and types

Memory is the process of encoding, storing, and retrieval of information in the brain. During these three activities, different memory systems will be involved. In the education of the learning environment, the important types of memory that are very important are short-term, working, and long-term memory. The working of information by the brain is thought to begin with the sensory and short-term memories which are the systems that convert information into forms that can be stored in the brain. The sensory register, which is the first type of memory to work on the information presented to an individual, consists of the visual (seeing), the auditory (hearing), kinesthetic (doing), tactile (feeling) and olfactory (smelling), but the first two have the main target for research literature. Information is first temporarily stored within the sensory register. According to Pashler & Carrier (1996), information temporarily stored in the visual memory, which is in form of an image of what is seen, fades with time (qtd. in Glenda, (n.d)). This information will be stored for about several hundred milliseconds unlike that information associated with the auditory sensory register, which is held for about one or two seconds.

The flow of information from the sensory registers to the short-memory is regulated by our attention to the information presented (Gaddes & Edgell, 1994; qtd. in Glenda, (n.d.)). Processing of information beyond the sensory registers is possible only when an individual pays attention to it, which means that some information does not get processed beyond this extent. Short-term memory will temporarily hold information for about 30 seconds to 2 minutes, and the typical loss of information in this part of memory will occur because of displacement by other information. However, this part can store information for an indefinite period as long as it is rehearsed (Pashler & Carrier, 1996; qtd. in Glenda, (n.d.)). There are also two subsystems of the working memory like there are two subsystems of the short-term memory. These are verbal and visual working memory (Baddeley, 1996, 1998; Vallar & Papagno, 1995; qtd. in Glenda, (n.d.)).

Information is stored in the long-term memory, where it can also be pulled from although it may be lost through forgetting. Forgetting is the loosing of memory from long-term storage. The importance of a curriculum that focuses on the consolidation of the newly learned information in the memory is important to reduce the chances of forgetting this information. For example, students can be allowed another 45 minutes with one teacher after spending the first 45 minutes of the lecture with the same teacher. The second session of 45 minutes can be used in activities that ensure consolidation of the new to-be-learned information. This is known as “block scheduling”. Teachers can minimize chances of students forgetting information, by ensuring that the curricula cross different disciplines, for example teaching the Roman Empire in art class and again Roman Empire in social studies for the same class of students. Interference occurs if there is no relationship between the information passed to students without allowing time for the settling of the previous information in the memory or within a short period. There has been researching to find out whether the cause of forgetting is the time passed or interference of the ability to remember information by what we are learning (Baddeley, 1996; Glenda, (n.d.). Interference can be favored in conditions where for example, a student moves to study science where the process of photosynthesis is introduced, just after spending a forty-five-minute mathematics lesson where the process of adding fractions was introduced.


Individuals can, through practice and behavior, acquire a permanent change in behavior, or the behavior potential, and this is what is termed as learning. It may be accidental or planned. Since even a permanent change of behavior will require the input of new information to modify the existing one, learning will involve memory. Without memory, it would be impossible to store new information and retrieve the learned information again.

The Working Memory

Earlier, theory brought forward the existence of the sketchpad for maintaining visuospatial information, the phonological loop for maintaining verbal information, and a central executive which was responsible for updating storage buffers in the two aforementioned maintenance systems whenever new information was available (Baddeley; 1986; cited in Mareike A., et al., 2007; 2393). According to Baddeley (2002), the brain through memory can temporarily hold information in terms of verbal and visuospatial nature through the working memory which can be thought of as a “multi-component system including the ‘phonological’ and the ‘visuospatial sketchpad”. These aforementioned two are subsidiary slave systems. Areas that are active in keeping the information active in the working memory, and specifically the prefrontal cortex, have been studied. Animal studies have revealed that different parts of the prefrontal cortex itself are involved in the specific working memory processes. For example, while processing of special information has been thought to be dependent on the dorsal areas of the lateral prefrontal cortex, the working memory relies on the ventral areas of the lateral prefrontal cortex to keep object information active (Wilson, Scalaidhe, & Goldman-Rakic, 1993; qtd. in Marieke, et al., 2005; 1185). Marieke et al., have, through a study of stroke patients concluded that destruction of the right DLPFC and the right PPC are involved in the temporal storage of special information in memory (2005; 1994). According to the working memory model proposed by Baddeley (1996), the central executive is the system concerned with functions such as problem-solving, control of action, and attention. The episodic buffer is a component that was afterward fractionated from the central executive (cited. in Gathercole, et al., 2004; 177). The Slave system is another component of the working memory, which is “specialized in the manipulation and retention of material in particular informational domains” according to the aforementioned author. The phonological loop consists of the short-term storage and the sub-vocal rehearsal. Non-phonological inputs such as pictures and printed words are held in the rehearsal process while material in a phonological code (subject to rapid decay) is stored in the phonological store. Recording of nonphonological inputs into the phonological form is carried out by the rehearsal process, and this input form gains access to the phonological store. At the same time, the decaying representations in the store are also refreshed. Information is stored in terms of its visual or special features in the visuospatial sketchpad (Baddeley & Lieberman, 1980; Logie, 1986; cited. in Gathercole, et al., 2004; 177).

Implications of working memory on learning

Working memory is very important for the process of learning. According to experts in the area of memory, there is a part of working memory that will interpret information that is presented to the brain, and integrate it with that information stored in the long-term memory (Baddeley, 1996; qtd. in Glenda, (n.d.)). Particularly, this part termed as the main controller or central executive may be the more important to study, in trying to find out the role of working memory in learning. Working memory is what makes an individual work through what they are working on at a particular time.

The necessity of working memory cannot be ignored even in very simple tasks. Learning has been understood to be a process through which knowledge is gained. The process involves a continued usage or uptake of information as students bridge lessons, move from one level to another and even graduate from one class to another. Students wishing to take down notes from a lecture for example need working memory to be able to remember what the teacher said. The learning process involves a combination of lessons and tasks which the student must combine to figure out issues or excel at school. Therefore, tasks that were learned before, or those that link with others must be remembered to be able to continue with the learning process. Working memory depicts the ability to work with the material, in addition to storing it. Therefore, because a student does not only get fed with information to store, especially in the demanding courses and subjects, working memory is very important in this respect. A study of seven-year-olds has associated low test scores among these children, and found working memory scores to lag behind short-term memory scores (Gathercole & Tracy, (n.d.); qtd. in Bald, 2009). According to Gathercole & Tracy, paying attention is important for the holding of information in the working memory. According to the authors, teachers may associate low working memory with high levels of distractibility, low levels of self-esteem, and short learning spans.

Children with low working memory will have poor overall learning because of the associated difficulties. The most important aspect is that these can be assisted where concentration which is low in these individuals, can be systematically built into the teaching. Teachers can offer assistance to these students by designing questions where everyone can be involved in answering. This can help in noting who understood what, as well as involving children in a group. Individuals with lower working memory may have a difficulty in learning when the working memory is overloaded. This is particularly the case with dyslexic students. These students can be helped by helping the building up of information into the working memory through rehearsals and ‘judicious repetition’ so as the demands of the working memory are eased according to Gathercole & Tracy, (n.d.); qtd. in Bald, 2009. The fact is that too many items on the menu will overload the working memory and make the demands for it higher, and the trick is to make sure this is not the case.

Although Gathercole & Tracy, (n.d.); (qtd. in Bald, 2009) have the opinion that children do not ‘typically’ rehearse materials before the age of seven and eight, songs and other carefully designed activities have been used to have rehearsal introduced at an earlier age. Even this has been applied in language learning. Gathercole & Tracy, (n.d.); (qtd. in Bald, 2009) have brought in the idea of the importance of the learning environment in the process of learning. In their view, distractions will easily break the working memory, and that boys are more easily distracted. Inside the classroom, the teacher must ensure that there are lesser distractions through incoming messages and moving in and out of the lessons. The authors have also hinted at the importance of careful designing of the curriculum. They think that the elements of IQ tests that involve holding and manipulating items of information such as shapes and numbers have a linkage to the working memory. Therefore, teachers can reduce the strain by having students build long-term memory stores. A long-term memory store can be built for such items at an earlier date in the learning process before the student is subjected to complex tasks such as mathematical calculations. Teachers in the language discipline must be encouraged to consider and understand the concept of working memory while planning work (Bald, 2009).

Swanson & Saez (2003; qtd. in Gathercole et al., 2008; 1019) have also brought forward that poor working memory capacity compromises the integration of current information inputs into the brain with the information retrieved from long-term memory. According to Gathercole, Lamont & Alloway (2006; qtd. in Gathercole et al., 2008; 1020), children or students with poor working memory capacity may fail in tasks because of forgetting task-relevant information and this may result in the overburdening of the working memory. Because it is helpful to consider the classroom as the basis or place of study of the impact of working memory on learning since it is where most formal learning takes place, it is important to consider studies carried out involving students or children at this level. Children aged 5 and 6 years, who had scored very poorly on measures of working memory at school entry one year earlier, also scored the lowest inability in reading and mathematics a year later. The task involved in the tests required not only processing but also the storage of new information. These children were also found to perform poorly in the tasks involving high working memory loads where, although they typically started the tasks, they began to make errors and failed to complete these tasks. The activities particularly involved keeping track of complex tasks, performing activities requiring storage and processing of material, and remembering the content of classroom instructions (Gathercole, et al., 2008; 1020).

In a study involving children with low and typical memory, the tasks involved detecting and recalling rhyming words in spoken poems, and another task of listening to a sentence and counting the number of words. It was found that task performance was most strongly predicted by the ability of the working memory (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980). A trade-off between processing efficiency and storage arises because the processing and the storage needs of an activity compete for a single limited working memory resource. Thus following the aforementioned case study involving the counting of words in a sentence and writing them down, it is possible that reduced processing efficiency in those children with low memory scores-which could diminish the resources available for the storage elements of the tasks-could have been responsible for the linkage found between the complex memory and the recall measure. A more observable result is that problems with the processing elements of the task did not appear to influence the ability to recall, i.e. did not appear to affect the recall decrement (Gathercole et al., 2008; 1033).

The role of verbal instruction in learning can also be looked into. The aforementioned study introduced some links between the working memory and the ability of the child to perform a simple sequence of actions following lengthy verbal instructions during the performance of these tasks. A discovery that could reinforce the observation by Gathercole et al., (2008) is that children with poor working memory scores had difficulties in following lengthy instructions in the classroom (Engle et al., 1999 p.309 – 331). The results of the aforementioned study also indicated that backward digit recall (a measure of working memory) was highly associated with the accuracy of the children to manipulate sequences of dual-attribute (color and form) objects.

The central executive sub-components of working memory and the phonological loop seem to have been both tapped by the lengthy instruction in the study. Performance of complex tasks is dependent not only on the phonological loop but also on the central executive. These complex tasks are those that require both the manipulation of the memory items addition to their storage. The phonological loop which is specialized in the storage of phonological material supported the forward digit recall according to a theory by Baddley & Hitch (1974) on the working memory model. The study indicates that task performance during lengthy instruction, was not only simply constrained by passive verbal storage capacity since the children’s backward digit recall scores were found to be closely linked with their ability o follow lengthy instruction.

The predictors of reasoning have been found. The best predictor is ‘storage in the context of processing’ and the other significant predictor of reasoning is coordination (Markus, Stefan, Marion, 2005; 252).


Working memory is vital for the learning process. The three types of memory discussed in this paper were sensory memory, short-term, working, and long-term memory. Working memory relates to the processing of information while an individual is working on the information. There are specialized subsystems of the working memory which works for certain purposes, namely the phonological loop, central executive, the sketchpad, and the episodic buffer. Low working memory can negatively affect learning because such individuals will experience problems of working memory overloading. Learning models can help individuals with low working memory to cope better, for example through reduction of the possibility for overloading it.

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