Working Memory Definition

Click the play button to listen to Dr. Gendron's definition of working memory:

Sound bite transcription:

So working memory is the capacity we have to retain and manipulate information, in the twenty to thirty seconds that information arrives to us. So as we manipulate the information, store its relevant pieces, we can allow the information to decay after that. So you can imagine that in a classroom situation, the teacher is constantly bombarding you with information that you need to retain for a little while. So she’ll be telling you to go to your math books, go to page 17, complete questions 19 to 21, but not do question 20, for example. So a student who has difficulties with working memory will constantly be asking, “Which page was it again? Which number did I have to do? Which number was it that we weren’t supposed to do?” Working memory is absolutely crucial to using our time efficiently in the classroom.


Students with working memory difficulties may:

  • struggle to follow lessons or instructions – written or oral – especially when multiple steps are required;
  • struggle to remember steps in a procedure, or lose track of which steps they have completed;
  • appear disoriented or appear to have lost attention, because they struggle to follow the flow of discussion;
  • struggle to answer reading comprehension questions;
  • struggle to keep track of details, which may impair reading comprehension and summarization;
  • struggle to solve multi-step problems or remember the steps in arithmetic calculations in mathematics;
  • ask the same question repeatedly.


Below is a list of possible accommodations and instructional strategies for students with working memory issues.


  • Chunk larger assignments into smaller, more manageable steps in order to increase student’s motivation and decrease the amount of energy required to complete tasks. Provide a checklist to help students track what they have completed.
  • Reduce the amount of note copying required. Allow students to make copies of another student’s notes. This frees up the student’s capacity to focus on understanding the concepts, rather than thinking about what to write down.
  • Allow students a scribe on evaluations, when appropriate.
  • Allow students more time to complete writing tasks, when appropriate.
  • As the student advances in the grades, they may benefit from having access to a laptop computer and various assistive technology to reduce the time required to accomplish their tasks.

Instructional Strategies

  • Cartoon brain lifting weightsEstablish consistent procedures and routines so that students can learn to follow along without requiring a lot of mental energy to remember instructions. This frees up more capacity to use their working memory for the learning task at hand.
  • When presenting new material, make sure information is always connected to students’ prior knowledge. This helps consolidate the information in memory and makes it more personally relevant for the student.
  • In giving instructions, always provide written and/or visual supports that all students can see (e.g., homework, instructions for assignments, explaining class activities, etc.).
  • Create visual aids, such as posters or checklists, to depict the procedures and expectations, and reference these tools frequently so that students learn to refer to them.
  • Use mnemonics to help students remember procedures, and reference these tools frequently so that students learn to refer to them. Click here to access the article Mnemonics.

Explicit Instruction for Working Memory

  • When reading text passages, cue students to read only one small section at a time. Then, help question student on the section (Who, What, When, Where, How, etc.) to help cue them on the relevant information. Have them highlight key information as they respond. As they progressively move on to the next section, have them reformulate what they remember from the previous section. Click here to access the mnemonic SQ3R.
  • At the elementary level, difficulties with working memory may affect students’ word reading and spelling of familiar words. Explicitly teach them word families as well as cloze techniques (fill in the missing letters) to reduce the cognitive load of the task and allow students to focus on the morphology of the words to remember them better.
  • For older students, teach effective highlighting and note-taking so that students can easily refer back to the key information.


Picture of the SQ3R handout

Click here to access the mnemonic SQ3R.