Working memory refers to our ability to hold and manipulate information in our minds over short periods of time (Gathercole & Alloway, 2007). Working memory is critical in an academic setting where students must engage in tasks that involve multiple steps, coming up with intermediate solutions, and then remembering those solutions so that they may apply them as they proceed through the task (Peng & Fuchs, 2016). Students with deficiencies in their ability to utilize working memory have difficulty engaging in these multi-step processes, as they lack the ability to follow lengthy instructions, and they have a tendency to “lose their place” in an activity (Gathercole & Alloway, 2007). One such multi-step task is the typical academic process of writing a research paper.
Writing a research paper requires students to follow a complex sequence of steps in order to come up with an acceptable final product. Students must choose a topic, gather appropriate and relevant resources, convert information for said resources into their own language while citing where they acquired the information, identify main ideas associated with their topic, support the main ideas of their topic with relevant information gathered, and effectively introduce and summarize the information that is presented in the paper. Researching and presenting information is a complex task, even for adults of have a fully developed working memory. We can then imagine how difficult a task like this must be for students who have yet to reach the peak of their working memory, or have special needs in the area. “Approximately 70% of children with learning difficulties in reading obtain very low scores on tests of working memory…” (Gathercole & Alloway, 2007).
There are some things that educators can do to help students who possess a below average working memory. Namely, adjusting assignments to reduce the load put on a student’s working memory. A few examples of how this can be done are breaking down larger task in to small chunks, reducing the amount of material to be stored, and utilizing external devices that can act as memory aids for students (Gathercole & Alloway, 2007). I would like to present the web based tool, Popplet, as a means to serve students with a deficiency in working memory by utilizing it to implement some of the these suggestions. You can see below an example of a Popplet template that I have created in order to help students stay organized when collecting data to write a research paper.
Looking at the Popplet template as a whole might seem a little daunting, but if you start zooming in on specific sections, you can see how by using Popplet to organize your research, you can intuitively break down the larger task of researching into smaller individual processes such as citing resources, and taking notes. This should help students manage working memory by allowing them to focus on one aspect of research. Yet if they forget what they are doing, they can zoom out and follow the map to see where they are at in the process, and what can come next.
Using Popplet in this way will also reduce the amount of material a student needs to keep in his or her working memory at any given time. Take for example the process of taking a note from a specific resource. A student can first write down the name of their resource, and then link to that resource in the citation box. This will prevent the student from having to hunt down the resource again in the future. Next, the student will start copying and pasting information in the “Notes” section of the Popplet. Now, the student can visually see where all of the his or her notes came from. Lastly, the student can then re-write the copy and pasted information in his or her own words, without having to keep any of that information in their minds, and without having to switch back and forth between multiple tabs or pages on their device.
Finally, Popplet will allow students to organize their information visually, in order to support their understanding of the topic. I can use Popplet as a mapping tool in order to connect relevant information to support the main ideas of my research. I can do this quickly, without having to memorize or re-write any information. Once a connection has been made, a student simply needs to follow the map in order to remind themselves of what they were thinking earlier when making those connections.
Popplet is a seemingly simple tool on the surface, and is relatively easy to work with. However, when it comes to helping students (particularly students with low working memory) organize their thinking, it can be a powerful tool in helping to reduce the amount of information and processing that must been done within the mind.
Fischbach, A. f., Könen, T., Rietz, C., & Hasselhorn, M. (2014). What is not working in working memory of children with literacy disorders? Evidence from a three-year-longitudinal study. Reading & Writing, 27(2), 267-286.
Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T. P., Dr. (2007). Understanding Working Memory. Retrieved July 7, 2016, from https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/WM-classroom-guide.pdf
Peng, P. k., & Fuchs, D. (2016). A Meta-Analysis of Working Memory Deficits in Children With Learning Difficulties. Journal Of Learning Disabilities, 49(1), 3-20.