Improving pupils' working memory

Written by: Margaret Reeve | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Achieving effective differentiation in the classroom and improving your pupils’ working memories are key priorities for teachers. Margaret Reeve offers some quick CPD ideas

With pupils, even in the same class, often having different capabilities, one of the most fundamental areas of development for teachers is in understanding differentiation strategies. These are the techniques used to help pupils make good progress, irrespective of their starting points.

Mike Gershon has published the “Differentiation Deviser” which has 80 examples of differentiation strategies, activities and techniques (see further information). It says these can be used “across the key stages and the curriculum”, and includes areas such as simplifying language, using examples, using seating plans and differentiating by outcome.

Working memory plays a critical part in the way pupils learn, but has limitations. Find ways to overcome those limitations and you will enhance pupils’ capabilities.

Explaining working memory

A model of working memory put forward by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch (1974) defines the technique as a better way to explain short-term memory. The term indicates that this type of memory is concerned with the work we do moment to moment, as opposed to long-term memory which can be conceptualised more like a store.

Working memory is generally considered to have limited capacity. Part of the importance of the model is the way in which it demonstrates how working memory can be easily overloaded, disrupted or interrupted – leading to a loss of focus and a reduced efficacy .

On average, working memory is limited to roughly seven pieces of information (plus or minus two); nine is pushing it, and we will struggle to learn and retain.

How can teachers support the development of pupils’ working memory?

Theories on working memory connect closely to differentiation. Helping your pupils to understand and overcome the limitations of their working memory will make it easier for them to complete tasks, engage with learning, and take on challenges. It will also give them a sense of what they can do to assert greater agency over their learning. The following working memory strategies give pupils a chance to take control of how they engage with learning, leading to better results all round:

Using scrap paper

  • Definition: Any piece of rough paper on which pupils can make notes.
  • Example: A pupil writes their thoughts down on a piece of scrap paper before they start writing.
  • Result: The pupil frees up space in their working memory, allowing them to concentrate on the act of writing. This makes it easier for them to target their efforts.

Using checklists

  • Definition: Any series of items a pupil uses to check that what they are doing is right.
  • Example: PEE – Point, Evidence, Explain. A pupil uses this to check their paragraph structure as they write.
  • Result: The pupil doesn’t have to think through all the possibilities on every occasion. Using the checklist frees up working memory, which they can target on the task in hand.

Using mini-whiteboards

  • Definition: An alternative to scrap paper. Writing can be wiped away, meaning it is not fixed.
  • Example: A pupil uses a mini-whiteboard to help do a complex calculation in a maths lesson.
  • Result: The mini-whiteboard expands the capacity of working memory. The pupil writes numbers on it, freeing up space and making it easier to persist with the calculation.

Designing sub-tasks

  • Definition: Divide a main task into a series of sub-tasks.
  • Example: In a science lesson, the teacher divides a large task (creating and running an experiment) into a sequence of separate sub-tasks.
  • Result: Pupils can focus on one task at a time, devoting their entire working memory to each one in turn.

Using verbal rehearsal

  • Definition: Pupils verbally rehearse their thinking prior to applying it.
  • Example: In a geography lesson, pupils discuss the pros and cons of renewable energy in pairs before writing a paragraph outlining their thoughts.
  • Result: Verbal rehearsal provides space in which students can refine, edit and order their thinking. Subsequent application of the thinking is thus much easier.

Putting theory into practice

To experience how the strategies actually work, try out one or two of them on yourself in your own work. As you do, consider how they allow you to overcome the biological limitations of your mind.

To start embedding these working memory strategies in teaching across your school, begin by introducing your team to two of the strategies and then plan how you will utilise them in lessons. Work out what kind of evidence you will need to collect to judge and demonstrate the impact of the techniques. Then give them a trial.

Remember that not all new teaching tools will work straight away. Teachers and pupils may need time to get into the habit of using a new strategy effectively. However, once established these techniques should have a remarkable impact.

The key is to continually monitor and adapt, ensuring you find a method that works for teachers and pupils. For example, you could reflect on your use of the working memory strategies by observing how pupils interact with them, how they start applying them unprompted to tasks in hand, and over time, how pupils’ subsequent performance differs from before you used the strategies.

  • Margaret Reeve is content manager at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools. Visit

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