Working Memory and the Learning Process


This paper discusses working memory and learning and tries to link them. Firstly, memory helps in the processing, storage and the retrieval of the information stored. In school, memory is important in the retention as well as processing of the new information presented to students and pupils. Therefore, this establishes a linkage between poor working memory and poor performance in the learning environment. Because learning is the taking in and the retrieval of new information, the health of the working memory therefore influences learning. Animal studies have revealed that different parts of the prefrontal cortex itself are involved in the specific working memory processes. Moreover, overloading of poor working memory may impede on the learning process and cause poor results. The paper observes that the curriculum in the learning environment can encourage reduction of such overload through rehearsal practice in the classroom. Rehearsal makes this information be taken to the long-term memory from the short-term memory.


Research has revealed the importance of memory in general and the working memory, as well as their roles in learning process. Memory is very important in the recollection of our past events and indeed, for the purposes of learning. Moreover, people who are important to us would be forgotten and there would be no expectation of the future. People would not be able to register change over time because they would live in a condition termed by Baddeley as “permanent present” such as a person who has suffered memory loss from conditions or illnesses such as encephalitis (cited in Thorne, 2003). Life would also be difficult, for example, people would not easily remember places like home, schools, and hospitals etc. Furthermore, learning would also be difficult if individuals cannot remember previous day’s lesson or things like plots for stories. In fact learning does not become enjoyable or even possible if an individual cannot retrieve what was done learnt before. LeDoux (2002) stated that “without learning and memory processes, personality would be merely an empty, impoverished expression of our genetic constitution” (p. 9). Furthermore, research has linked the processes through which learning is fostered by the relationship or working together of the working and long-term memory. Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) conception incorporates the retrieval structures for linking the information stored in the long-term memory. Recent literature has proposed that exposure to neural activation as a way to enhance working memory (Klingberg, 2009). Moreover, practice-related improvement of the working memory (Berry et al., 2009) can be used to improve the neural ability (focusing on task-relevant information and ignore distractions) of the brain to help achieve an optimal working memory performance (Zanto, 2009) and this can enhance performance in learning.

Literature Review

Past research reveals the components of learning that make the working memory necessary in this process. Although memory is very important in learning especially at school, performance cannot only be gauged on the ability to remember. Other factors that may influence performance include the ability to retrieve information from what has been presented to them during learning. The main controller or central executive is the part of memory which interprets the information newly presented to it, and integrates this information with the existing information already stored in the long-term memory (Thorne, 2003).

Individuals can, through practice and behavior, acquire a permanent change in behavior, or the behavior potential, and this is what is termed as learning. It may be accidental or planned. Since even a permanent change of behavior will require input of new information to modify the existing one, learning will involve the memory. Without memory it would be impossible to store new information and retrieve the learnt information again. This links memory in general, and the working memory with learning.

Memory is the “process of encoding, storing and retrieval of information” in the brain (Thorne, 2003). During these three activities, different memory systems are involved. In the education or the learning environment, the important types of memory that are significant are the short-term, working and the long-term memory.

Research reveals that working of information by the brain (and hence learning process) is thought to begin with the sensory and short-term memories which are the systems that convert information into forms that can be stored in the brain (ref). Information is first temporarily stored within the sensory register. According to Pashler & Carrier (1996, cited in Thorne, 2003), information is temporarily stored in the visual memory, which is in the form of an image of what is seen and fades with passage of time. This information will be stored for about several hundred milliseconds unlike the information associated with the auditory sensory register, which is held for about one or two seconds (LeDoux, 2002, p. 176).

The flow of information from the sensory registers to the short-memory is regulated by the individual’s attention to the information presented at the registers (LeDoux, 2002, p. 178 & Thorne, 2003). Processing of information beyond the sensory registers is possible only when an individual pays attention to it, which means that some information do not get processed beyond this extent. Short-term memory will temporarily hold information for about thirty seconds to two minutes, and the typical loss of information in this part of memory will occur because of displacement by other information (Thorne, 2003). However, this part can store information for an indefinite period as long as it is rehearsed (Thorne, 2003). There are two subsystems of the working memory, like there are two subsystems of the short-term memory; verbal and visual working memory (Baddeley, 2004; Thorne, 2003). Past research according to Baddeley and Hitch (1974) theorized the existence of two “slave systems” that would store information on a short-term basis and a “central executive” that would supervise integration of information and coordination of the slave system. This theory was known as the multi-component model of working memory. The two slave systems were the visuo-spatial sketch pad and the phonological loop. Other research diverted from the segregated view of the working memory to the theory that the working memory was not a separate system but a part of the long-term memory. The theory by Cowan held that representations in the working memory were a subset of the long-term memory. The working memory consisted of two embedded levels, the level consisting of long-term representations that are activated (these can be as many), while the second one, known as the focus of attention, could hold up to four of the activated representations. According to the Oberauer’s extension of the Cowan theorization, there existed a third level of narrow focus that could hold only one chunk at a time. This focus was embedded in the aforementioned four-element focus. According to Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) conception, a set of processes through which information would be processed to the transfer of it to the long-term memory from the working memory-the long-term working memory-existed. The working memory would retain some clues that would enhance the linkage or complex relations between thoughts in a text or novel since the working memory would not retain more than seven chunks. Most of what would be read would be stored in the long-term memory and linked through the retrieval structures. The working memory had a capacity of about four chunks in young adults according to Cowan (2001). It was possible to group single digits into groups of three or five and view them as one chunk. Therefore, it would be possible to hold more than seven digits in this case.

Alloway (2006, p. 134) defined working memory as “the system responsible for temporarily and manipulating information”. Lot of research has being done to find the areas that are involved in keeping the information active in the working memory and specifically the prefrontal cortex, have been studied. Animal studies have revealed that different parts of the prefrontal cortex itself are involved in the specific working memory processes. For example, while processing of special information has been thought to be dependent on the dorsal areas of the lateral prefrontal cortex, the working memory relies on the ventral areas of the lateral prefrontal cortex to keep object information active (Marieke, Roy, Sebastiaan, Kappelle, Frijns, & Postma, 2006, p.1185). Marieke et al. (2006), have, through a study of stoke patients concluded that destruction of right Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the right posterior parietal cortex (PPC) are involved in the temporal storage of special information in memory (2006).

According to the working memory model proposed by Baddeley (2000, 2004), the central executive is the system concerned with functions such as problem solving, control of action and attention. The episodic buffer is a component that was afterwards fractionated from the central executive (Gathercole, Pickering, Ambridge & Wearing, 2004, p. 177). Slave system is another component of the working memory, which is “specialized in the manipulation and retention of material in particular informational domains” according to Gathercole et al (2004, p.177).

The phonological loop consists of the short-term store and the subvocal rehearsal. Non-phonological inputs such as pictures and printed words are held in the rehearsal process while material in a phonological code (subject to rapid decay) is stored in the phonological store. Recording of non-phonological inputs into the phonological form is carried out by the rehearsal process, and this input form gains access to the phonological store. At the same time the decaying representations in the store are also refreshed. Information is stored in terms of its visual or special features in the visuo-spatial sketchpad (Gathercole, et al., 2004, p.177).

Implications of working memory on learning

Working memory is very important for the process of learning (Alloway, 2006). According to experts in the area of memory, as revealed in the preceding section, there is a part of working memory that will interpret information that is presented to the brain, and integrate it with that information stored in the long-term memory (Thorne, 2003). Particularly, this part termed as the main controller or central executive, may be the more important to study, in trying to find out the role of working memory in learning. Working memory is what makes an individual work through what they are working on at a particular time. Alloway (2006, p.134) posited that “the capacity of working memory is limited”, [therefore] excessive storage and processing will result in catastrophic loss of information”.

The necessity of working memory cannot be ignored even in very simple tasks. In the preceding section, learning has been explained as a process through which knowledge is gained. The process involves a continued usage or uptake of information as students bridge lessons, move from one level to another and even graduate from one class to another. Students wishing to take down notes from a lecture for example need a working memory to be able to remember what the teacher said. The learning process involves a combination of lessons and tasks which the student must combine to figure out issues or excel at school. Therefore, tasks which were learnt before, or those that link with others must be remembered to be able to continue with the learning process. Working memory depicts the ability to work with the material, in addition to storing it. Therefore, because a student does not only get fed with information to store, especially in the demanding courses and subjects, working memory is very important in this respect. A study of seven year olds has associated low test scores among these children, and found working memory scores to lag behind short-term memory scores (Bald, 2009). According to Bald (2009), paying attention is important for the holding of information in the working memory. Furthermore Bald stated that teachers may associate low working memory with high levels of distractibility, low levels of self-esteem and short learning spans. Some of these conditions may be thought of as those encouraging overloading of the working memory hence reducing the efficiency of learning as established in the literature review that the working memory holds a limited amount of information (for example, Cowan, 2001).

Children with low working memory will definitely have poor overall learning because of the associated difficulties (Alloway, 2006 & Gathercole, Durling, Evan, Jeffcock, & Stone, 2008). The most important aspect is that these can be assisted where concentration which is low in these individuals, can be systematically built into the teaching. Teachers can offer assistance to these students by designing questions where everyone can be involved in answering. As theorized by Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) in the preceding section that some information would be stored within the long-term memory and the brain establishes a linkage between or among the ideas, it is important for teachers to encourage practical activities in learning that allow the brain to link the various ideas taught. This can help in noting who understands what, as well as involving children in a group. Individuals with lower working memory may have difficulty in learning when the working memory is overloaded. This is particularly the case with dyslexic students. These students can be facilitated by giving assistance in building up information into working memory through rehearsals and ‘judicious repetition’ so as the demands of the working memory are eased according to Bald (2009) and Alloway (2006). The fact is that too many items on the menu will overload the working memory and make the demands for it higher, and the trick is to ensure this is not the case. Alloway (2006) emphasized that teachers should ascertain that instructions given to these children are brief and simple as possible. Gathercole et al (2008, p.385) emphasized teachers to use memory aids in order to “develop the child’s strategies to support memory”.

Although Bald (2009) has the opinion that children do not ‘typically’ rehearse materials before the age of seven and eight, songs and other carefully designed activities have been used to have rehearsal introduced at an earlier age. Even this has been applied in language learning. Bald (2009) has brought in the idea of the importance of the learning environment in the process of learning. In his view, distractions will easily break the working memory and boys are more easily distracted. Inside the classroom, the teacher must ensure that there are lesser distractions through incoming messages and moving in and out of the lessons. The author has also suggested the importance of careful designing of curriculum. They are of the opinion that the elements of IQ test that involve holding and manipulating items of information such as shapes and numbers have a linkage to the working memory. Therefore, teachers can reduce the strain by having students build long-term memory stores. Long-term memory store can be built for such items at an earlier date in the learning process before the student is subjected to complex tasks such as mathematical calculations. Teachers in the language discipline must be encouraged to consider and understand the concept of working memory while planning work (Bald, 2009).

Gathercole et al. (2008, p.1019) have also brought forward that poor working memory capacity compromises the integration of current information inputs into the brain with the information retrieved from long-term memory. According to Gathercole et al. (2008) and Alloway (2006), children or students with poor working memory capacity may fail in tasks because of forgetting task-relevant information and this may result in the overburdening of the working memory. Gathercole at al. (2008) carried out a study involving students aged five and six year olds to observe the impact of working memory on learning. This study has shown that children aged five and six years, who had scored very poorly on measures of working memory at school entry one year earlier, also scored the lowest in ability in reading and in mathematics a year later. The task involved in the tests required not only processing but also the storage of new information. These children were also found to perform poorly in the tasks involving high working memory loads where, although they typically started the tasks, they began to make errors and failed to complete these tasks. The activities particularly involved keeping track of complex tasks, performing activities requiring storage and processing of material, and remembering the content of classroom instructions (Gathercole, et al., 2008; p. 1020).

In a study involving children with low and typical memory, the tasks involved detecting and recalling rhyming words in spoken poems, and another task of listening to a sentence and counting the number of words. It was found that task performance was most strongly predicted by the ability of the working memory (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980). A trade-off between the processing efficiency and storage arise because the processing and the storage needs of an activity compete for a single limited working memory resource. Thus following the aforementioned case study involving counting of words in a sentence and writing them down, it is possible that reduced processing efficiency in those children with low memory scores-which could diminish the resources available for the storage elements of the tasks-could have been responsible for the linkage found between the complex memory and the recall measure. A more observable result is that problems with the processing elements of task did not appear to influence the ability to recall, i.e. did not appear to affect the recall decrement (Gathercole et al., 2008, p.1033).

The role of verbal instruction in learning can also be looked upon. The aforesaid study introduced some link between the working memory and the ability of the child to perform simple sequence of actions following lengthy verbal instructions during performance of these tasks. A discovery that could reinforce the observation by Gathercole et al., (2008) is that children with poor working memory scores had difficulties in following lengthy instructions in the classroom (Engle et al., 1999 p.309 – 331). The results of the above study also indicated that backward digit recall (a measure of working memory) was highly associated with accuracy of the children to manipulate sequences of dual-attribute (color and form) objects.

Performance of complex task is dependent not only on the phonological loop, but also on the central executive. These complex tasks are those that require both the manipulation of the memory items in addition to their storage. The phonological loop which is specialized with the storage of phonological material supported the forward digit recall according to the working memory model of Baddley’s (2000). The study indicates that task performance during lengthy instruction was not only simply constrained by passive verbal storage capacity since the children’s backward digit recall scores were found to be closely linked with their ability to follow lengthy instruction.

As established in the literature The importance of a curriculum that focuses on the consolidation of the newly learned information in the memory is important to reduce the chances of forgetting stored information. For example, students can be allowed another forty-five minutes with one teacher after spending first forty-five minutes lecture with the same teacher. The second session of forty-five minutes can be used in activities that ensure consolidation of the new to-be-learned information. This is known as “block scheduling”. Teachers can minimize chances of students forgetting information, by ensuring that the curricula crosses different disciplines, for example teaching the Roman Empire in art class and again Roman Empire in social studies for the same class of students. Interference occurs if there is no relationship between the information passed to students without allowing time for the settling of previous information in the memory or within a short time period. There has been research to find out whether the cause of forgetting is time passed or interference of the ability to remember information by what we are learning (Thorne, 2003).


Working memory is vital for the learning process. The three types of memory discussed in this paper were the sensory memory, short-term, working and long-term memory. Working memory relates to processing of information while an individual is working on the information. There are specialized subsystems of the working memory which work for certain purposes, namely the phonological loop, central executive, the sketchpad and the episodic buffer. Low working memory can negatively affect learning because such individuals will experience problems of working memory overloading. Learning models can help individuals with low working memory to cope better, for example through reduction of the possibility for overloading it.


Alloway, T. C. (2006). How does working memory work in the classroom? Educational Research and Reviews. 1 (4), p. 134-139

Altgassen, M., Phillips, L., Kopp, U. & Kliegel, M. (2007). Role of working memory components in planning performance of individuals with Parkinson’s disease. Neuropsychologia. 45(10). p. 2393-2397

Baddeley, A. D. (2000). The Episodic buffer: a new component of working memory? Trends in cognitive sciences. 4(11). p. 417-422

Baddeley, A. D. (2004). The Psychology of Memory. The Essential Handbook of Memory Disorders for Clinicians. John Wiley & Sons. p. 1-13. 2009. Web.

Baddeley, A.D., Hitch, G.J.L (1974). Working Memory, In G.A. Bower (Ed.). The psychology of learning and motivation: advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47-89), New York: Academic Press

Bald, J. (2009). Language and literacy: Working memory and learning-an important new book. Web.

Berry AS, Zanto TP, Rutman AM, Clapp WC, Gazzaley A. (2009). Practice-related improvement in working memory is modulated by changes in processing external interference. J Neurophysiol. 102(3):1779-89

Buehner, M., Krumm, S. & Pick, M. (2005). Reasoning=working memory≠attention. Intelligence. 33(3). p. 251-272

Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 87-185

Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 19(4). p.450–466

Engle, R. W., Tuholski, S. W., Laughlin, J. E., & Conway, A. R. A. (1999). Working memory, short-term-memory, and general fluid intelligence: A latent-variable approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 3. p.309–331

Gathercole, S. E., Durling, E., Evans, M., Jeffcock, S. & Stone, S. (2008). Working memory abilities and children’s performance in laboratory analogues of classroom activities. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 22(8). p. 1019-1037

Gathercole, S. E., Pickering, S. J., Ambridge, B. & Wearing, H. (2004). The structure of working memory from 4-15 years of age. Development Psychology. 40(2). p.177-190

Kintsch, W., Patel, V., & Ericsson, A. (1999). The role of long-term working memory in text comprehension. Psychologia. 42, 186–198

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Penguin Group. New York

Marieke A., Roy P.C.K., Sebastiaan F.W., N., L., Kappelle, J. L., Frijns, C.J.M., & Postma, A. (2006). Brain areas involved in spatial working memory. Neuropsychologia. 44(7). p.1185-1194

Thorne, G. C. (2003). Memory and learning. 2009. Web.

Zanto, TP, Gazzaley A. (2009). Neural suppression of irrelevant information underlies optimal working memory performance. J Neurosci. 29(10):3059-66

Find out your order's cost