5 ways to support pupils with poor working memory

If pupils struggle with working memory, they can quickly find the classroom a difficult place to learn, says Mark Enser

working memory

There is a clear and troubling link between a child’s family income and how well, or badly, they will do at school. 

This is so well recognised that it led to a large-scale government intervention and funding through the pupil premium policy with money going to schools to support pupils coming from worse off backgrounds. 

However, as Professor Becky Allen has explained in her post "The pupil premium is not working", this extra money has not helped to close this gap. 


Quick read: Professor Barbara Oakley on why working memory is the Rosetta Stone of teaching

Quick listen: What every teacher needs to know about memory

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So is it possible we have been focusing on the wrong things? Could it be that the disadvantage gap is actually about a gap in working memory?

Researchers Andy Dickerson and Gurleen Popli from the University of Sheffield used evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study to suggest that poverty, and in particular persistent poverty, in a child’s early years has a significant impact on their cognitive development. 

Although they acknowledge that parental investment and parenting style in low-income homes can offset some of this effect, the poverty still has a direct effect, especially if the household is in poverty between the birth of the child and their third birthday (See "Persistent poverty and children’s cognitive development", 2015).

Impact of poverty

Why would poverty have this impact on a child’s cognitive development? 

Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg suggest that poverty in childhood creates stress and that it is this stress that affects cognitive development, even affecting working memory when that child reaches adulthood. 

In "Childhood poverty, chronic stress and adult working memory (2009), they find that “the longer the period of childhood poverty, the higher the levels of allostatic load [a measure of chronic stress] during childhood, and the greater the reduction in young adults’ subsequent working memory”.  

Changes to teaching

While the evidence is far from conclusive yet, this is something we do need to consider as teachers as working memory is vitally important in the classroom. 

Our working memory allows us to hold on to pieces of information and manipulate them in our minds to reach answers to questions or to complete tasks. Your ability to divide 3894 by 13 in your head is dependent on your working memory. 

Your working memory also allows you to follow an instruction like: “OK class, could you use the information I have just given you about the causes and impacts of the Boscastle flood to answer this question: ‘Was the flood a natural disaster or human error?’. Before that, make sure you have written the title and the date, and could you have your homework on the desk ready for me to see as I come round? Off you go.”

Support for working memory

In this example, the pupil has to hold on to the information they have been given, remember the question, remember the instructions on what to do with the title and date and to get the homework out. They also still need to remember this information on the Boscastle flood as they try to turn it into an answer to the question. 

A pupil with a better working memory will be able to manage this far more easily than one with a more limited working memory. 

Perhaps, then, the pupil premium money would be better spent on better teaching in a way that supports working memory. 

Some of the potential teaching methods were discussed in the very helpful classroom guide "Understanding working memory" by Susan Gathercole and Tracy Alloway (2007). 

They suggest that our first step as teachers should be to recognise when a pupil is suffering from working memory challenges and to monitor that child when they are working. We can then adapt our classroom practice by reducing the load on working memory. 

We could do this by:

  1. Establishing clear routines in the classroom. If the pupil knows they always have to write the title and the date in their book when they come in the room, it won’t be an additional thing to remember later on. Where possible, build routines into the lesson

  2. Breaking instructions down into clear steps and avoiding introducing too much new information in one go. 

  3. Supporting pupils who struggle with working memory at the point of need. Use a mini whiteboard on their desk to give prompts, sentence starters, keywords or images they can refer back to. 

  4. Making sure that pupils have the chance to practise using information you want them to remember and use again in the future. If it is easy to access in our long-term memory, it will put less of a strain on our working memory. For example, if a pupil knows that Boscastle has steep valley sides, a confluence of two rivers and heavy rainfall from the Atlantic, they will find it much easier to answer the question “Why did Boscastle flood?” as they won’t need to hold these facts in their working memory while trying to answer it. 

  5. Avoiding going off on a tangent in explanation. Keep to the information you want them to remember. Also keep in mind that words are transient. Once you have said them they are gone. Provide a list of the key points from your explanation for pupils who need them. 

All these points should seem like simple, good teaching. Supporting our most disadvantaged pupils means doing nothing more than teaching well but doing so in a way that creates an environment in the classroom that best supports them in their learning. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His new book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: an essential guide to effective and efficient teaching is out soon. He tweets @EnserMark

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