Notes from ‘the limitations of working memory’ – Desiree Tomlinson

On Monday, I begged and worried, like a dog with a bone, anyone with half an ear to let me go on ‘the limitations of working memory’, CPD training run by Chris Moyse (@ChrisMoyse) Before this I had been along to Liz Slocombe’s drop in session and got the bug! Liz gave both background information about working memory and neurodiversity and strategies to help students.

Working memory is small, like a post it note for the brain. It is like a rickety bridge between the Environment and the Long Term Memory, if we overload it, it stops working.

70% of SEND students will have poor working memory and more than 80% of them will fail to reach their expected levels of achievement. So hopefully courses like this and the work of people like Liz, will help change such statistics.

The strategies suggested to engage and help students with poor working memory seem obvious.

Keep the classroom environment calm and uncluttered, to give students space to focus and concentrate without distraction. The walls may look bland, but heck, everyone’s facing the right way. It’s so tempting to have masses of colour and ‘things’ covering the walls, but all this ‘white noise’ in the background is a huge distraction for someone struggling to concentrate.

Be positive, give clear instructions, check everyone’s understood; write the instructions clearly and precisely so they can be followed. It’s far too easy for a student to have forgotten the first part of the instruction by the time they get to the last part. Be prepared to repeat instructions, use visual signs.

Now for the lack of equipment – what’s the trick? Ignore this misdemeanour and hand over a pen, so irritating, but so much less stressful! – much easier! However, if the student has sat for 20 minutes dreaming …

Power point, some of us are so old we remember pre white boards and power point – hard to imagine I know. Slides etc. should be minimalist, giving relevant information only – no dancing aeroplanes or whizzy graphics. If it’s not needed to inform the lesson or your teaching scrap it. This may sound like going back to the dark ages (or at least to my young days, but it helps students focus). By the way, if you are not using your white board/screen blank it out, it’s far too easy for students with P.W.M to get distracted by what’s on the screen than to concentrate on the task in hand.

Now for the best bit technology of the evening – I’m assured that hitting the ‘B’ button will turn the screen black and hitting the ‘W’ will turn it white. Pressing ‘B’ or ‘W’ again will turn the screen back on (though I suspect it’s only me who didn’t know that!).

Teach – test (testing promotes remembering).

It takes a lot of practise to move something from the working memory to the long term memory, like learning times tables by rote. Therefore, ‘starters’ could take the form of testing prior teaching/learning, for instance a quiz of two questions from this week’s lessons, two from last week and two from last month.

I have to say that 2 hours went in a flash and I’m looking forward to the next session in February.


Below is a list of recommended literature:

YouTube Feltham School Knowledge Organiser (Leitner System)

Improving Secondary Science EEF (PDF)

Memorable Teaching – McCarea

Principles of Instruction (Teaching) – Barack Rosenshine 2010 (Download)

Education Practices Series 21 (Download)

How to use retrieval practice to improve learning (PDF)

A Classroom Guide – Understanding Working Memory, Susan Gathcole and Tracy Alloway


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