Not All Memory Works The Same

One of my weakest traits as a learner revolves around my poor working memory. This impacts me as a learner and as a teacher. Working memory is basically how you handle that information you only need for a short period of time. A great example of this is when people try to give me a phone number to write down, as by the time they get to the 4th or 5th number, I already forgot what was the first couple numbers. One time a friend of mine sent me the room number where I needed to meet them, but it was in a Snapchat message. I looked at it, closed the message, took a few steps and had already forgotten it. I had to wait until I was closer and then warned them I was saving that message because I knew I would forget it again.

I have seen this idea of working memory more and more in my research of how to help students with ADHD. ADHD learners can have really poor working memory and while I have not yet been officially diagnosed with ADHD, I do not think anyone in my life would be surprised if I was. If you want to understand working memory better, check out this video by How to ADHD all about working memory.

My poor working has not just impacted me as a learner but as a teacher. One of the hardest things for me as an individual is remembering people’s names, especially if I am only introduced to them for a short time. Some people may see this as me not caring about others, but really it is just the interaction of object permanence and poor working memory. Names are just not something that I can transfer easily into long-term memory or even be able to recall. Even if I know your name really well, oftentimes, if you have me try to remember it quickly, that just won’t happen. As a teacher, this is the biggest reason I had seating charts, and once our attendance programs had student pictures in them, I could use them to study to remember students’ names. Eventually, I would remember the names of each student, but having that spatial organization of students in my brain, helped me immensely. Unfortunately, as soon as the term was over and I had new students, I too easily forgot the last term names. Again, it isn’t that I do not care; I just can’t do it.

Although I may have a lot of trouble with working memory, that doesn’t mean I can’t remember things. It just often takes using that information enough times and having a really important purpose for that information, then I will never forget it. Such as the specific heat capacity of water, a constant we needed in a few thermal physics labs, but because of how often we used it in those labs, I can pull that constant out whenever I need it. I can still remember the register code for bananas (715) at the grocery store I worked at in high school. But if you just introduced yourself to me and then walked away, I already forgot your name unless something else causes me to retain it (interesting, relates to something very personal, the same name as me, …).

Now carry my own examples to the situations in so many classrooms. How many times are we giving information to students and not assisting them in being able to access that information easily? Even if we just said something, we have to realize that not everyone can readily recall it based on how their brains work. Some suggestions I always give is to ensure you have the important things are written down and visible to students so they can always look back at them. Do not just write a million lines of notes on the board and expect students to be able to both pay attention to what you are saying and the test on the board as they may not be able to process both at the same time, and something will be missed. Giving notes ahead of time so they can focus on what you are saying and then just having them add their own notations can greatly improve how they handle all of that new information. Remember to break up large chunks of information into smaller chunks and again, having access to this already printed means that they do not have to process both at the same time.

The biggest thing I can tell other teachers is that you have to have patience with those of us who have poor working memory. You may have to say things multiple times, and that doesn’t mean we do not care or are not trying; it just means that we have to deal with our memory abilities. It is a characteristic of who we are as a learner and not one that is easily changed, despite how important you may think the information or experience is.

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