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Working Memory

What is working memory?

Working Memory is a cognitive system that stores, manipulates, filters, updates and processes information in the conscious mind for brief periods of time. It is ​limited in capacity and susceptible to rapid decay.

Working memory and the Brain

All of the brain is active all of the time and brain regions are highly inter-connected. However, neuroimaging has identified a region covering the very front part of the brain, on both the left and right lobes that is particularly active during working memory tasks. This region is called the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex can be subdivided into several subregions. One subregion is associated with strategic control of information, maintaining, monitoring and manipulating information, whilst another is associated with explicit retrieval of one or a few items of information, sequencing responses and selection, comparison and judgment of stimuli.

Research suggests that new learning or applying a superficial understanding of learning requires greater employment of these areas than when applying consolidated knowledge. As proficiency increases, there is a shift to more fluent retrieval strategies and reduced effort on working memory.

Working memory works in tandem with the hippocampus. The hippocampus is another important brain region that increases in activity when performing mathematical tasks. The hippocampus is found deep in the brain and has many functions but is especially recognised for its role in encoding and consolidating memories, retrieving information and spatial navigation.

Working Memory, Maths Anxiety and Emotions

The prefrontal cortex, the region most associated with working memory, is highly connected to the amygdala, a small part of the brain with an important role in emotions. Strong, connected pathways between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala result in working memory being susceptible to emotional influences.

Research suggests praise, novelty, choice, anticipation and reward beneficially influence attention and engagement with learning. However, fear and anxiety avert attention and occupy the limited capacity of working memory. With working memory heavily engaged in processing negative emotions such as maths anxiety, its capacity to process questions and new learning, and recall prior knowledge is greatly reduced. 

Working Memory and Learning for the Long Term

The brain is plastic, it has an incredible ability to both grow and prune connections. Whilst some research suggests a strong, predictive relationship between working memory capacity and mathematics attainment, additional research also suggests that by applying appropriate teaching and learning strategies, working memory difficulties can be supported to enable a learner to progress beyond predicted attainment markers. Indeed, research shows chess masters do not have a working memory capacity greater than amateurs. Their skill is how they ‘chunk’ the information available to them and link it to previous learned patterns in order to reduce processing effort.

Supporting Working Memory and/or Maths Anxiety

Supporting working memory will enable a learner to maximise their progress. As a specialised maths tutor experienced in working with students with working memory difficulties and/or maths anxiety, I tailor my lessons to:

  • Engage the learner and establish confidence in their skill development and ability to learn

  • Reduce negative connotations regarding mathematics

  • Build new learning in suitably sized chunks 

  • Present new information such that it activates both the visual-spatial and verbal/phonological components of working memory

  • Increase accessibility and transferability of skills at all levels through concreteness fading - presenting information from concrete representations and pictorial models such as bar modelling, through to abstract representations

  • Explicitly connect new learning to prior knowledge 

  • Consolidate learning using appropriate rehearsal, retrieval and revision strategies 

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