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Why Working Memory Is So Important for Learning: Cogmed Can help

Posted by Colin Klupiec on March 22, 2016 at 4:20 PM

cogmed.jpgWhat is working memory and what happens if your working memory is weak?

Mimma Mason, Cogmed Manager for Pearson Australia, explains that students with poor working memory find learning much harder.

Mimma spends much of her time raising awareness of working memory and its relationship to learning. Most of us might easily relate to long term memory, what we did a while back, or short term memory, like what we did yesterday.

But do we give enough time to thinking about working memory? That’s what’s going on when we get exposed to new things, and it’s a critical part of the learning process.

Mimma Mason explained working memory to the Learning Capacity Podcast, and spoke about how we can develop it.

Listen to the podcast episode:

Topics covered

  1. Working memory
  2. Social & emotional learning
  3. Attention
  4. Behaviour
  5. Learning difficulties

People & organisations mentioned

  1. Mimma Mason
  2. Pearson Australia & New Zealand
  3. Mind Brain Education Conference

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 44 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Pearson's Mimma Mason on the importance of working memory for learning

Colin Klupiec: Mimma, thanks for joining us. 

Mimma Mason: My pleasure. Good to meet you, Colin.

Colin: In your role as the Cogmed Manager for Pearson in Australia and New Zealand, I'm assuming you have a fairly wide variety of tasks in raising awareness for brain related things, if I can put it that way. Can you just walk us through that?

Mimma: Absolutely. My job is looking after Cogmed but also a bunch of other programs and initiatives around building school awareness of social emotional learning and cognition. Basically all those things that relate to how we learn, what's important in learning, apart from the academic stuff, which Pearson already does very well.

Rather than providing content, we're looking at what are the ways that we can improve learning outcomes and that's by improving the way we attend, by improving behavior, by looking at social skills and emotional skills and so on.

So, I do look after cognitive part of that role and work with schools and with clinicians on a regular basis to teach them about working memory. Firstly raising awareness, and how that implicates progress in learning, and then supporting them through their implementation of strategies to improve working memory.

Colin: So coming now to working memory specifically, because that's what I wanted to talk with you about in this conversation, typically, I guess most people would think about memory in terms of long term memory, like what I could remember from ages ago, or short term memory, perhaps what I had for breakfast this morning.

But working memory is a little bit more elusive I think, in the common discussion amongst people. Can you walk us through exactly what working memory is? 

Different types of memory, including working and long term memory

Mimma: Sure, and it's a great question.There are different types of memory and we use both working memory and long term memory in learning. It actually points to one of the most important ideas that we have: that humans have this ability to represent ideas in our mind and once we can do that, it enables us to plan things and deal with complexity and look ahead and evaluate things, and to learn, of course.

We rely on being able to hold things in mind and represent ideas. Now the more we work with a particular idea and information, the more it is likely then to turn into something that is remembered. It goes into long term memory that we can draw on. We call that knowledge, that's building our knowledge base.

So long term memory is related to knowledge that we have learned. But working memory is how we deal with everything that's new. It's that ability to hold information in mind and use it in our thinking.

And working memory's really short. It's literally only a very brief period of time and it's that ability to not only store information, that's what short term memory is, but do something with it.

Now if you're going to complete a task that has multiple steps in it, it's about remembering where you're at in that task, what you've got to do next, what you've just done and not lose sight of the task, of just holding all of that information in mind.

Whenever something is new, we're relying on working memory to do something with it, and of course the more we do with it, the more we can hold on to that, the more it becomes part of our long term memory. And then when we can encode it to long term memory it becomes knowledge.

Colin: So from a student's perspective, working memory is crucial because they're being exposed to new things all the time. 

Mimma: Absolutely. And in fact the challenge for the teacher as well in that environment or for the student is to get that balance right between the amount of new information and the amount of knowledge that you already have because these things are so closely intertwined.

The more you know, the less you have to hold in memory. But the more that's new and that you're trying to learn, the bigger the impact that has on your working memory mode.

So if a teacher can balance that right, have enough of the information that supports,or scaffolds, the new information that's coming in, the less they have to hold in mind and get that balance between the new information connecting to old information right.

Colin: So I want to come to the mechanics of how that works a little bit later on, but one of the first things that springs to mind is if working memory is dealing with things that are new as they're coming into me, let's say I'm a student and I'm being exposed to a new topic.

Let's say the new topic starts today, teacher starts talking about stuff and I'm thinking, "Alright, I haven't heard this before," and my mind starts to churn away in working memory. Would it be safe to assume then that if my working memory is not that crash hot, that I'm immediately going to have an attention problem?

Working memory & attention

Mimma: Yeah, attention is the behavior of the consequence of a poor working memory. I suppose it's that control over teaching. The more you have to remember and the more complex it is, the more that's new, the greater the load.

And if your working memory capacity is only two or three items, then it's very easy to get overwhelmed.It's very easy to be distracted. It's very easy to lose that. And we call it "catastrophic loss". You literally can't remember the first thing that was said. It's completely gone because it's so overwhelming.

Most of the time, if we can connect new information to old and there's enough of those supports, then our working memory capacity isn't overloaded and we can manage that very well. And chunks of information, three or four chunks of information is what most of us can hang on to without being distracted.

That works well in that environment, but the more that it's new and the more that it doesn't relate to something that you already know, the more difficult it is, the bigger the load on your working memory capacity.

Colin: So there's been some research coming out recently to suggest that the variance of student progress in a class can be as much as three or four, even up to five years. I'm assuming then that those students would probably have different levels of ability with their working memory, which makes the teacher's job just that much harder.

Working memory more important for academic perfomance than IQ 

Mimma: Absolutely, and in fact it turns out that working memory tends to explain more of the variance in academic performance than even IQ does, because it's a practical measure. It's a practical measure of, how much am I taking in?

You can have fabulous material being presented in the classroom. It's not a matter of the intellectual capability to deal with it, but it is a matter of how much of it you can hold on to and use. That's what working memory is about.

And you're right it can vary quite substantially in a classroom.

Now, if the only strategy we have to manage working memory in the classroom is the teacher's ability to manage those loads, then that job's pretty big because you could have a very wide variety of kids in front of you and a wide variety of working memory levels.

3 or 4 students in every classroom have poor working memory

And we also know that about 15% in any student population are likely to have working memory capacity that is poor enough to interfere with progress in learning.

That's three or four in every classroom, even without doing anything too strenuous.

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Colin: I'm assuming then as well that that three or four out of every classroom, let's say a class has 20 or 30 based on those numbers, I think it'd be fairly safe to assume then that the effects of those three or four students who have working memory problems, and then presumably attention problems, and then by extension also perhaps behavioral problems, I guess magnifies the problem.

So, my question to you then is can you actually develop working memory capacity?

You can develop working memory

Mimma: You can and there is strong evidence to support the fact that you can. For many, many years, even the way that I was taught as a teacher many moons ago, my role was to help students to cope with poor working memory.

Memory was thought of as a fixed capacity that you couldn't change and so my job was to try and manage that. And we know how hard that is to do. There are a lot of people out there who still believe that because the research into the plasticity of working memory is fairly new, it's fairly recent.

It's really only in the last 20 years or so that it has really gained some momentum. The neuroscientists at the heart of the development of Cogmed working memory training were also the guys that established this plasticity.

So you can train it. It is something that isn't fixed. Saying that though, it isn't easy either, it is resistant to change, but you can change it and the positive news is that you can change it with very focused, specific and repeated activity and one that's increasingly challenging.

If you follow those general, almost biological rules of neural plasticity, of those demands, you can get change and we've seen that in a lot of the working memory training research.

Colin: That brings me to the idea of content versus learning because you've just mentioned repetition and intensity. I think it'd be fairly safe to say that previously or in decades gone by, people used to think about school as very content heavy, or at least we think about that now looking back.

And now there seems to be a lot more conversation about learning. What I'm taking from this conversation is that learning is very much about what's going on in the working memory space.

So, what was going on a couple of decades ago when we were just doing content, was that just drill and practice and then just filing things away in long term memory?

Mimma: Look, they're both important. I am not going to take away the importance of actually getting through the curriculum. Teachers in this country are paid to make sure that the maths and that letters and numbers work is done and completed and there are certain skills achieved there.

Content is important. Content also scaffolds the new information that we learn so we build on it. You need to attend to both. Thank goodness we are finally emphasizing learning skills in the classroom.

But it's not one or the other. We need to do both. We need to build capacity to learn, especially now. Someone recently said to me, "If what all a teacher presents could be Googled, then I should be replaced by Google."

Content is important, but you can get it in other ways. It's that ability to learn, it's that ability to think critically, it's that ability to be able to evaluate. And a lot of those critical thinking and creative thinking skills come down to what's in working memory.

You need to be able to hold ideas in mind, process them, do something with them. So a lot of what we're talking about in learning is absolutely limited by working memory.

But working memory is also limited by how much you already know, because the less you know, the more you have to hold in working memory.

So they scaffold each other. The more new information only gets in when you've been able to hold on to it for long enough to do something with it.

Colin: I think it's become quite trendy to talk a lot about thinking, which I think is very important. But I did read a quote that said, "Well you can't really talk too much about thinking unless you have something to think about."

So if you haven't stored away a lot of "content" in your mind to think about, well it's going to be very hard to think about something.

Mimma: That's right. And the training curriculum is actually really clear in this as well. You need to be able to not only get through the content, but develop those general capabilities.

You need to be able to question the content, use it in your thinking, be critical of it, assess it, digest it in many different ways. It's both of those skills that are important. Putting things into long term memory but also being able to handle new information successfully so that you can hold on to it and use it in the future.

It's not trendy. I think we are finally getting to really understand that. It's that need to explicitly teach thinking skills, so that teachers are aware that they're doing it.

Kids notice their thinking skills because they notice their ability to remember. They notice their ability to hold on to information. They notice what their limits are. Then they're going to be more successful in developing their own strategies.

Colin: Neuroscience tells us that neural pathways can be developed or strengthened. Does this suggest...just to try and get some sort of a graphical feel about this, does this suggest that something is actually growing in the brain? You hear people talk colloquially about, "Oh, come on, mate. Grow a brain will you," but is that actually happening?

Mimma: It's more about strengthening the connections between new and old information, that's what learning is. At the biological level, at the neuronal level it's new information connecting to old information. So it's about strengthening those connections.

When you do something repeatedly, when you practice something repeatedly, when you practice it with emotion, when you practice it in the right conditions, those connections become stronger.

So instead of a dirt path that you get when you try something once, you're getting a super highway that is very efficient in getting to that information quickly and automatically. And that's what we're trying to do.

When you follow a good training program, whether it's cognitive training or physiological training, going to the gym, it's the same principle. It's all about lots of practice with increased challenge that strengthens those connections and makes them act like a habit, so that it becomes more automatic.

Colin: Okay, so from a connection perspective, I can understand that because a human skull has a limited size, so I guess your brain can't grow beyond the dimensions of the skull, whereas if I go to the gym and I work really hard and I eat lots of protein and I put on a lot of muscle, I will physically get bigger.

Mimma: That's right.

Colin: But in the brain, it's all about strengthening connections between cells through that repetition.

Mimma: That's exactly right. And it goes the other way as well. You get better at what you practice. You get better at what you do all the time, but there's also pruning. Our brain is very efficient at making sure that the connections that aren't used very often are not needed and therefore are pruned away and may not be learned so well.

Colin: Now that's fascinating. I might just jump in there and say, so you're suggesting that things that we don't do that often or things that are not seen or perceived by the brain to be particularly important, they just get cut off. 

Mimma: Well, it's harder to hang on to them, and I think of the old content versus the learning discussion that we've just had. If you're studying for an exam and you're literally studying the night before and you're remembering some nebulous facts, but just enough to get through the exam, then chances are a week down the track, you might not even remember what those specs were because they're not important to you.

It's not meaningful learning and you haven't spent a lot of time on it, so it hasn't been reinforced. Whereas things that are more relevant to our survival, things that are important to us, things that we are motivated by, that are driven by our own personal motivation, they're the things that get practiced and that are reinforced and that we get stronger connections with.

Working memory & learning

Colin: So let's come back to the school situation where we think about working memory and learning. This is kind of a weird question, but do you think we actually spend enough time thinking about what's actually going on in the brain?

So as educators, are we actually spending enough time talking about strengthening neural pathways, rather than just moving through a system? Is it worth talking more on that level?

Mimma: Oh, you bet. It's my personal passion now, Colin. I'm the host of a Pearson conference called the Mind Brain Education Conference and that's exactly the aim. We want to make it explicit to educators how we learn and use that information to guide better learning outcomes.

We've got to know a little bit more about the brain and a little bit about behaviour and understand that explicitly if we're going to try and change the way we think and behave.

This is the tool kit that teachers have: how do we pay attention, how do we remember things, what helps us to focus, what helps us to persist? If we can tap into that and understand it, that just makes what happens in the classroom so much more effective.

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Colin: I guess, coming back to the issue of attention, which you just mentioned, if I observe a student during a new task and I can see that they're having trouble focusing on it, they're attention levels are low. If I have a greater awareness of working memory, presumably I as a teacher could then start to diagnose the situation.

So, taking a slightly more scientific or clinical view of education in this case, I can look at the student and go, "I can detect that something's not quite working here. I need to change my approach.

Mimma: Yeah, and I think you can do that and I've seen this in action. We do a lot of working memory workshops and raise teachers' awareness of these issues and one of the first things that you do in planning a lesson, is to think about what previous information can I build on, so that I can minimize that working memory load.

So you'd be planning that and strategising around that in the first place, so that you're avoiding too much of a big jump. And then when you're in that situation, the way that you would notice is probably that kids aren't following the instructions or that they're turning to their friends and asking, "What do I do next", or they're just fidgeting and looking out the window.

And if you see that happening repeatedly, then that certainly does give you some clues. A common issue is that it's often mixed up with kids who aren't trying hard enough. Kids with poor working memory often get accused of “you weren't listening”, or you're “not trying hard enough”, and whenever I speak, I try and make that distinction.

Working memory and attention are effortful. That focussed attention actually requires some effort on your part and there are some kids who make that effort and some that won't, and some that can't.

So I think you need to understand where this child's at. I always advise teachers to look for those kids who are trying hard but still not making progress, because that tells me that there's probably something wrong with their working memory capacity, not with their motivation.

Colin: Let's think now about the people who are listening to this particular discussion and thinking, "Okay, I've got all that. Surely there's got to be something out there", or they're probably waiting for the punch line, "So here's what you need to fix your working memory." It's the inevitable thing, isn't it?

We talk about this problem, there's been a lot of research into it, surely there's got to be something that you know, can I take a pill, can I do a computer program? What products are available to help with working memory?

 Three ways to manage working memory

Mimma: Look, the research tells us that there are three things you can do to manage working memory.

  • One is to change the environment, and that's up to the teacher, to minimize the loads.
  • Two is to teach strategies and so colleges have been doing this, teachers have been doing this forever. We instinctively do it for ourselves, take a picture of what's on the board rather than trying to remember it.

Write things down rather than try to hold things in our heads. Put things up on the wall, have the information in the world rather than in our heads. So that's one and two and they rely on strategies. They're strategies for coping.

  • The third thing that the research says we can do is try and improve working memory. Cogmed working memory training, which is a product that I look after in Pearson, has actually painted on what to try and do that and it came out of the research on the plasticity of working memory.

It's a very hopeful revolutionary idea 20 years ago that you can change working memory, that it's not fixed and small changes make a big difference. But it's not easy to do, so it's a particular way that you have to do this training.

Cogmed is as much about doing lots and lots of working memory exercises, getting lots and lots of practice, doing it specifically around working memory. So you train what you want to get better at and build those connections to make that a new habit, and it's got to be challenging.

And most of the time the effort that's required to make that criteria usually means that people don't succeed, so there's lots of cognitive training programs out on the market that are either too general or not specific enough to build their memory, or train as you like, they're not structured enough to make sure that you get enough of the dose that you need to get change.

And that's what's good about Cogmed. It's both having access to the right exercises and the structure and support of the training that makes sure that you actually get through enough of the training to see change. And that's been figured out by, I think, by public [SP] research.

How much do you have to train to get good at working memory to improve your working memory capacity? It turns out you've got to work fairly intensively. And for most kids it's about 6, 7 weeks of training maybe 25 minutes 4 times a week. It's that sort of level of repetition and challenge and adding massiveness [SP] that is required to get change.

You don't get that from other just brain training programs. So, that's what we're good at and that's the sort of thing that you want to be looking for if you want to do working memory training.

Colin: I'm glad you mentioned some of the numbers there because I'm assuming many people will be listening and thinking, "Well, how long do I have to do the training for?" So you've just mentioned six or seven weeks and four times a week about 25 minutes a day.

Is that when you start to see change, or is that when you notice that there's been enough change. And I know there'll be some variance there because every person's different, but six or seven weeks, is that a time when I can then just stop and say I'm done?

Mimma: That's a really good question. Again there's that idea of it's use it or lose it. You're only as good as what you train. But you have to remember what we're training here. It's not an esoteric task like a specific strategy in a shoot them up game that you're only going to use once and isn't meaningful to the rest of your life. We use working memory all the time. Those strategies are important to us.

And there's something that's learnt in that intensity of training that seems to...you are able to hang on to it. And because we're using our working memory all the time, every time we process this new information, we rely on our working memory.

We're practicing those skills all the time. So even though the Cogmed training ends after six or seven weeks, the practice in using those strategies doesn't. And having a coach is also a very important and unique part of the Cogmed program.

Having someone to talk to you and help you to notice your thinking and explicitly point out those strategies you're using and help you to be rewarded for using those strategies, the more likely you are to do that again, the more likely to transfer those skills and strategies to everyday tasks.

So it's a very important part of that training is to notice what you're doing. Repetition isn't enough. You've actually got to be actively thinking about it and doing something with that information 

Colin: So the first two things that you were talking about are strategies. They're the sort of things that you just live with day-to-day. But doing something like Cogmed or an active approach to working memory training, it's coming in before the problem, it's an intervention.

Mimma: Yes and look, I'll give you an example. One of the first things that I notice when our young students are going through Cogmed, is that they realise firstly that attention is effortful. There's a lot of people out there who don't realise that.

They will look at what's written on the blackboard, but they don't realise that they actually have to apply some energy into this, some effort to writing it down or doing something with it, thinking about it.

You and I possibly take that inner voice in our heads for granted where we repeat something so that it stays fresh and active. For a lot of kids with poor working memory, they don't have that inner voice, they're not speaking to themselves.

So one of the first quite magic things that happens, I think, with Cogmed training is that kids suddenly realise that, hey, if I concentrate in this way, if I apply this sort of energy and this sort of rule of thumb in my head, I can actually get through this, I can remember. And that's quite wonderful to see.

And then beyond that there's a bit of automaticity that happens. Often even while Cogmed is still in progress, we've seen kids saying, reporting back to us, "Hey, this is becoming more automatic. When I think about it too much, I actually get it wrong, but when I trust my brain, I'm starting to get it right."

So there's something that's already starting to happen there, the ways of looking, the effort that's required starts to become a habit.

Colin: That's beautiful language, isn't it? Trusting your brain.

Mimma: Yeah, it's lovely that it comes from them too. A young gentleman drew a picture for us. As a baseline we asked him about his goals for the training and he drew a picture of his brain at the beginning of the training and he had tilted on the side all this information falling out of his head and falling on to the ground.

That's how he described what it felt like for him. He just tried but the information would fall out of his head, and at the end of it he said, "It stays in and I can use it." It was as simple as that. That's how he sort of represented it.

He had ways of keeping that information at the end of the training. And look that's just the beginning. Having good working memory doesn't necessarily make you an instant scholar either. You've still got to do the sounds work, you've still got to do the numbers work if you want to get good at...if you want improvements in literacy and numeracy. It's about that combination.

Working memory is that primer, if you like, and once you understand these and it becomes habitual behaviour. Once you can hang on to just that little bit more information, then you can use that and take advantage of what else is happening in that classroom.

Colin: I've got this great image in my mind now of a brain that was tilted on it's side and it's just has righted itself and things aren't falling out anymore. That's a great story.

Mimma: Yeah, I hear it often. It's not a one off, it matches the language in psychology that psychologists use about loss of information being catastrophic. We've all had that feeling and this affects all of us, by the way. We all have working memory limits.

If you've pulled over and tried to get driving directions, we all know what it feels like when too much information and as soon as you set off to follow the first, you've completely forgotten. That information's fallen out of your head and it's catastrophic loss and that's exactly what this little boy was just describing.

Colin: Well, thank goodness most of us drive around with our heads at the right angle. Mimma, that's a great story. Thanks so much for your time.

Mimma: My pleasure. Great to talk to you.

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