Working Memory

Nearly every aspect of human life depends on memory. Individuals who cannot encode, store, or retrieve information must rely on others for their survival. Acquiring more knowledge about working memory can make a significant contribution to our understanding of how individuals think, learn, and remember.

What is Working Memory?

Working memory is the ability to hold a limited amount of information on-line over the short term while the information is being actively used or processed.

Working memory memory has been conceptualized as an active memory system that is responsible for the temporary maintenance and simultaneous processing of information (Bayliss, Jarrold, Baddeley, Gunn, & Leigh, 2005).

Alternatively, working memory has been defined as

  • the use of temporarily stored information in the performance of more complex cognitive tasks (Hulme & Mackenzie, 1992), or
  • as a mental workplace for manipulating activated long-term memory representations (Stoltzfus, Hasher, & Zacks, 1996).

Overall, working memory is viewed as a comprehensive system that unites various short- and long-term memory subsystems and functions (Baddeley, 1986).

Diverse working memory theories and models have several structures and processes in common:

  1. a division into verbal and visuospatial stores;
  2. an encoding function;
  3. involvement in effortful retrieval from long-term memory;
  4. enactment of strategic processes; and
  5. executive and attentional processes.

In general, the combination of moment-to-moment awareness, efforts to maintain information in short-term memory, and the effortful retrieval of archived information constitutes working memory.

Despite definitions limiting working memory to memory-related functions, many researchers and practitioners use the term broadly.

From the perspective offered in this text, we must be cautious when considering the construct of working memory, lest everything that goes on in the mind is classified as working memory. If the construct is allowed to become too inclusive, then its usefulness will decline.

Consequently, in this text, the definition of working memory is limited to the management, manipulation, and transformation of information drawn from either short-term or long-term memory.

However, it is difficult to delimit working memory and disentangle it from related cognitive processes, such as reasoning.

From a broad perspective, working memory is a central cognitive process that is responsible for the active processing of information. It appears to be a fundamental capacity that underlies complex as well as elementary cognitive processes (Lepine, Barrouillet, & Camos, 2005).

Working memory supports human cognitive processing by providing an interface between perception, short-term memory, long-term memory, and goal-directed actions.

Working memory is particularly necessary for conscious cognitive processing because it permits internal representation of information to guide decision making and overt behavior.

Fundamentally, working memory is one of the main cognitive processes underlying thinking and learning. By utilizing the contents of various memory-storage systems, working memory enables us to learn and to string together thoughts and ideas.

Working memory’s relations with various aspects of academic learning mainly arise from its limited capacity.

Although, there are individual differences, the capacity of working memory is quite restricted, even in individuals with normal working memory resources. For example, the typical individual can only manipulate about four pieces of information at a time (Cowan, 2001).

And, unless information is being manipulated, it will only remain in working memory for a short interval, perhaps as little as 2 seconds. Thus, there has always been an emphasis on working memory’s limited capacity to retain information while simultaneously processing the same or other information (Swanson, 2000).

Because of the central role working memory plays in cognitive functioning and learning, successful learning is largely a function of the individual’s working memory capacity.

For instance, a child with a severe deficit in verbal working memory is likely to have a reading disability. Moreover, given the inherent limitations of working memory, efficient utilization of its resources is important for all individuals, not just those with working memory deficits.

In our daily activities, we are constantly dealing with demands and goals that compete for the limited processing capability of working memory. Luckily, the active participation of the working memory system is not needed for all cognitive operations or behavior.

Many cognitive functions and behaviors can be carried out in a fairly automatic fashion with little or no reliance on working memory (Unsworth & Engle, 2007).

However, working memory is necessary for the acquisition of skill mastery that leads to automatized processing. It is also necessary when dealing with novel information, problems, or situations; trying to inhibit irrelevant information; maintaining new information; and consciously retrieving information from long-term memory.

    Adapted from: Working Memory and Academic Learning: Assessment and Intervention. A book by Milton J. Dehn.