Helping Students Develop Their Working Memory

I read part of an article in Independent School magazine recently entitled Putting Memory to Work by Andrew C. Watson, Michael Wirtz, and Lynette Sumpter.  In the portion of the article I read, the authors explained the different types of memory we all have access to in our brains.  They focused on working memory as it is the most used in school by our students.  Because it can only hold so much information for so long, it’s important to teach students how to use it effectively so that connections and bridges can be made to move information from the working memory into the short term and long term memory.  That totally makes sense to me.  I’m all about teaching students about their brain and how to best utilize it to learn and grow as students and individuals.

So, yesterday in STEM class, I offered the students a chance to practice utilizing their working memory.  Every Saturday in class, we view a science video that teaches content and ideas related to our unit of study.  Yesterday’s video focused on the constellations and how they came to be.  It was about three and a half minutes in length.  Usually, I give the students a task to do while watching the video so that they are actively engaged in what they are learning.  In the past, they’ve taken notes on their whiteboard tables regarding questions they have and facts they are learning.  This task has allowed some great discussions to be fostered.  However, what I’ve found is that as they take notes, they put the ideas out of their minds.  They don’t actually learn what they record on their tables.  So, while this task keeps them focused on the video, they retain none of the information.  Therefore, I decided to try something different to allow the students to, hopefully, genuinely learn what they focus on in the video.

Before the video began, I talked to the students about working memory.  I explained what it is and how important it is to practice using it effectively.  I explained how vital making connections between new information in the working memory and prior knowledge in the short and long term memory is to getting that new information to stick.  I told them, “Instead of taking notes on your whiteboard table or paper, I want you to practice using your working memory.  As you learn new facts or have insightful questions about what you are learning, connect it to prior knowledge.”

After the video, I had interested students share something they learned and how it connected to their prior knowledge.  The students were very detailed when they shared how what they learned connected to their prior knowledge.  It was like watching neurological bridges be made right then and there.  They were processing the new information and comparing it to what they had previously learned.   It was so cool.

While today’s activity seemed to go well, did it make a difference for the students?  Did telling them about their working memory and providing them a strategy for using it effectively help them to gain more knowledge from yesterday’s science video?  Can the students really comprehend the idea of working memory in the sixth grade?  Did I just waste their class time?  What about the ELL students in the classroom?  Did this strategy help them in any way?  As I’m hoping to provide my students with more opportunities to practice using their working memory effectively throughout the academic year, are there other strategies I should introduce regarding working memory?  Are there other activities I could use to help my boys better utilize their working memory?

Trying something new, I find, always brings more questions than answers.  However, growth and development can’t possibly be fostered through repetition alone.  I need to try new ways to engage and inspire my students.  Perhaps giving my students strategies to effectively utilize their brain will help them.


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