Simply Science: Now what was I going to say?

By GJ HONDA

After having said my goodbyes to my kiddos and husband, it wasn’t long before I stumbled back into the house muttering, “I’d probably get farther if I had my keys.” That’s when my husband starts to count how many seconds it will be before I come back for my cell phone. He defines a good day as me making no more than three return trips before really taking off.

How would you like to improve your working memory? A working memory is a short-term memory system that provides temporary storage of information. Examples of ways a working memory is used might be the act of remembering a grocery list, a phone number or similar things that are not intended to be stored in your long-term memory.

For example, send me to the grocery store without a list, and I’m liable to forget the milk, bread and vegetables.  However, the doughnuts standing on the rack in the front of the store will soon be on my kitchen counter because “seeing” them reminds me of just how much I like them. And, of course, thinking about doughnuts is a more recent memory than the memory about the milk, bread and vegetables. When I get home from the grocery store, my kids know to remind me of what I had originally gone after. To my frustration, I inevitably have to make a return trip to the store.

The working memory also can affect one’s reading comprehension abilities. That seems pretty obvious. If you can’t remember what was just read, you can’t comprehend it. Like me, I’m sure none of you has ever read an article in a magazine only to find that when you’re finished you have no idea what it was you just read. I’m sure I’m alone on that one … right?

Studies have shown that one of every 10 students who attends mainstream schools is identified as having working-memory difficulties. The greater part of the students who struggle with their working memories perform below grade-level in comprehension whether it be in reading, mathematics, spelling or other subjects. It takes longer for the information to sort itself out in the learner’s mind. By the time the information is processed, the instructor already has moved ahead four or five ideas, leaving the learner far behind his peers. Many of these students become frustrated with timed activities such as testing. Rapid presentation of information makes it difficult for the student to stay abreast of general class work. As a consequence, many do not complete activities they have started. They may even begin to see themselves as failures or lacking in intelligence.

So how does an IQ relate to working memory? A person’s IQ shows what a person has learned. Environmental factors such as parents’ educational levels or financial background can often play a part in determining one’s IQ score. A working memory is different in that it measures a student’s ability to acquire information. This ability for obtaining knowledge does not appear to be influenced by environmental factors, but it has proven to be a good indicator for predicting test scores in math and reading.

It can even be said that everyone struggles with the working memory. I mean, really, who hasn’t misplaced keys or forgotten the milk at the grocery store? A working memory deficiency isn’t a problem until it begins to affect one’s daily activities on a regular basis. For example, the student who performs below grade level learns more slowly than his peers, or struggles with comprehension of the material being taught, might actually be suffering from a working memory disability. Are these students capable of learning? You bet. However, they will need more time and repetition to store the information in long-term memory. As someone once said, “Repetition is the mother of all learning.”

Now, where did I put my keys?

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Simply Science guest columnist G.J. Honda is a student at Mesa State College studying kinesiology and health education. She is a wife and mother of four children. She hopes to work in some aspect of the public health field. She wrote this column as part of a special topics class in popular science writing.


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