What is Memory Weakness and How Can Working Memory be strengthened?
Imagine the scene of a busy classroom nearing the end of the school day. The teacher is heard to say, “Students, it’s almost time to go home. Please write down your homework assignments, put your books away, and line up at the door.”
Sounds simple…straight forward – there is no doubt what students are supposed to do. So why is Charlie already lined up at the door when his books are all over his desk? And where are the materials he needs to take home to do his homework?
You see, all Charlie remembers is to “line up at the door.” But how can this be?
In our work with learning disabilities, we are finding that there is a very strong connection between learning challenges and short-term memory skills. Adults and children with learning disabilities often have difficulty recalling information that they have seen, or heard, or both.
Parents and Teachers unaware of the complexities of this challenge struggles may frequently ask themselves the question: Why Can’t They Just Remember? Fortunately, we are developing a good understanding of what is actually happening in the brain when we take in information, process and store it, and attempt to retrieve it for immediate or later use. And we are learning that with the right, targeted therapies, we are able to remediate the disability in those affected.
While there are three primary “modalities” or “channels” through which we learn, most school learning takes place through two of them:
- Auditory – what is heard
- Visual – what is seen
(Understand, this involves not only how well people see or hear, but also how they process information that comes through those channels.)
In the classroom, teachers usually present information by telling and/or showing something, and the students need to respond in some way to show that they learned what is being taught.
The short term memory process involves two parts:
- Taking-in information quickly and accurately enough to be able to think about it and hold on to it and
- Being able to respond to it.
Breakdowns in the process can occur in either part: the taking-in stage or the response stage.
Because student learning has traditionally been measured based on the kinds of responses they make, the focus in learning and learning problems has been on the response part of the process.
For many students, however, it is the receptive piece, or the taking-in stage, that is not working efficiently.
The ear and the eye are critical to efficient school learning. If either the visual or auditory channel is not working efficiently, the child’s ability to take-in, or receive, information will be hindered. These individuals will have to work very hard to gain information and may not always be successful.
Typically, a person with Auditory Memory Problems has difficulty following orally given directions. They tend to get information out of sequence, or get only part of the information given.
For example, if the teachers says to “Turn to page thirty-five and do row four,” Jennie, who has weak auditory memory, may do row five on page thirty-four. Ben, who also has memory weaknesses, may turn to page thirty-five, but not know what row or problems to do.
In some classrooms, the rule is that you “listen the first time and you’ll get it; and no talking to your neighbor.” Perfectly reasonable for most students. Unfortunately, in a situation like this, Ben is stuck. He won’t have a chance of keeping up with the class.
Most people speak in phrases of about seven words (Primary teachers often speak in shorter phrases to match the developmental needs of their young students).
An individual with auditory memory weaknesses may be able to take-in and think about only three or four words at a time. As they listen, they hear three or four words, instantaneously (and subconsciously) stop listening so that they can process the information, then begin listening again.
As a result, the listener is losing a word or two from every phrase. The information no longer makes sense and becomes confusing, boring, and hard to pay attention to.
Students with Visual Memory Weaknesses may have great difficulty copying from the board.
Ted, who is in junior high school, is trying to be organized and use an assignment sheet. Unfortunately, he can’t get the assignments copied down fast enough to be finished when the bell rings and get on to his next class. What he does get written down, doesn’t make very much sense when he goes back to read it at then end of the day.
When Ted copies from the board, he has to copy one letter at a time. If it is really quiet in the room, he might be able to copy up to three symbols (letters) at a time. Other students in the class can copy the whole sentence or maybe the whole assignment at one time. It takes Ted much longer to copy than other students, and he frequently loses his place and copies the wrong letters.
And, since he is not taking-in and remembering the total sequence of letters and words, he will not be able to recognize when he has made a mistake.
Adults with visual memory weaknesses often experience the frustration of making numerous mistakes if their jobs require them to record numbers or codes of some kind. They often make mistakes in copying because they shift or leave out symbols (letters or numbers). They frequently do not recognize their errors and find that under time pressure, the symptoms usually get worse.
Current research clearly indicates that there is a strong connection between short term memory and learning. This is an important awareness for teachers and parents to have since there are most likely some children in every classroom who have some inefficiencies in either the auditory or visual memory channels .
Solution – Part I
Ways To Make Information Easier To Take-In
As much as possible, lessons should be taught and instructions should be given in a multimodality way. When students are learning by seeing, hearing and doing, those students who are weak in one modality will have a chance of picking up the information in their stronger modality.
Students who are missing some of the information that is being presented orally because they cannot take-in and process the information fast enough, will be able to focus, comprehend, and remember better if the oral information is connected to something that they are seeing and/or doing. For example, when learning new vocabulary words, have the students act out the meaning of words. Make detailed mental pictures of the word meanings and describe the images. Read and write the words in sentences.
Be aware of those students that are struggling to copy from the board or a book. The need to be allowed more time to copy math problems or assignments and may need to have them checked for accuracy before proceeding to do the work. Be aware of the purpose for the task and provide the problems on a paper that these students can write on when appropriate. For students who simply cannot write down assignments quickly or accurately enough, provide them with an already completed list of assignments.
Work with students on organizational skills. Organization and memory seem to be strongly related.
- Teach students how to use an assignment sheet (both for recording assignments and checking them off when they are completed).
- Give assignments orally as well as in written form
- Help students develop routines for collecting the materials they will need for homework, where to put completed homework, and getting assignments turned in.
- Make sure that organizational skills are monitored until they become a habit.
Solution – Part II
“Stretching the Memory” Strategies
Visualization is a critical factor in both visual memory and comprehension. Teachers and parents can help students increase their visual memory by incorporating visualization into teaching and homework. Individuals need to learn how to visualize symbols (such as numbers for math problems) and pictures (for understanding and remembering stories, history, concepts, etc.).
To stretch the memory for copying, reading sight words, and spelling, put the “stimulus” (what they are copying from) above the students’ eye level so they have to look up at it.
- Have the student look at the stimulus and “make a picture of it in their mind.”
- Remove the stimulus and have the students “see” the image in the air.
- Trace it with two fingers and say what they see.
- Point to the letters or numbers (in the air) and say them.
- Play with the image. Make the difficult parts bigger or brighter. Separate the image and see part of it on one wall and part of it on another. Put the image back together and say it; or reduce it in size and have the students picture it on their paper.
- Trace the image.
If the student can only retain three digits of information (for example three letters or numbers), begin this process with just three symbols. When he can easily manipulate the visual image for three digits, try having him see, remember, and respond to the same information with distractions. Continue to increase the amount of information the student can retain.
An efficient strategy for remembering things that are heard is to use your inner language to hear it again, visualize it, and repeat, write or do it . For example, when someone gives you directions to go somewhere, you may find that you repeat the directions to yourself, picture the streets and the right and left turns, and then say the directions aloud, write them down, or follow them. These steps can be applied to almost any task supported by the auditory memory.
- Parents can have their children repeat instructions to themselves and picture what they are going to do before they start following the directions.
- If the child forgets what he is supposed to do, have him try to hear the instructions in his head again or look up to remember the pictures he made (remember holding the “stimulus” above eye level?).
- “Play” with the auditory image (what the child is hearing in his mind). If he always mixes the order of the second and third direction, have him “hear” the second direction very loudly or in a sing-song voice when he repeats the directions in his mind.
- If the child can follow two directions but forgets or gets distracted before he gets to the third, have him imagine a drum roll coming just before the third command as he repeats the instructions to himself.
Individuals with auditory or visual memory weaknesses may find it difficult to visualize or use their inner language (hear something in their mind). Development of these two critical factors in memory takes time and patience, but can be practiced as a part of almost any task. Have fun with this! See how many ways it can be applied and how it will enhance learning! For more information about memory assessment and development, try reading You Don’t Have to be Dyslexic by Dr. Joan Smith.