Using Working Memory for Standardized Testing


One of the challenges of standardized testing in English Language Arts is that students have to read and recall a large volume of text in a short amount of time. I’ve been experimenting with ways to help my students build up their ability to recall, most recently being inspired by a TedTalks video on working memory. Using principles of brain science, I devised a short warm-up for my students.

Let’s say I begin with five words: horse, vitamin, orange, planet, creation.

Try to remember those words over the course of the next few minutes.

I will ask you three questions, and after I am finished, we will see how many of the words you remember.

1. What is 6 times 82?

2. What day of the week was one week and two days ago?

3. Spell “magic” backwards.

Now, how many of the words can you remember?

In order to remember the words, we must process them. Using our prior knowledge and our working knowledge together will help us to remember them. Making connections between those words and something we already know will allow us to process and remember them.

Keep in mind that our brains also have a huge capacity for images. Allowing ourselves to “see” what we read can help us to comprehend, understand, and remember it even better. Read this passage and try to understand it without visualizing (creating images in your head):

A toggle switch that is wired to a USB cable port will help provide the linkage necessary to turn a mechanism on or off. Without the toggle switch, the energy cannot flow from one device to another, ultimately, creating an interruption of electrons.

To many of us, the passage may not have much meaning, especially, if we don’t use imagery or process it in our working memory with items from our prior knowledge.

Taking the same passage, if you allow yourself to see a switch attached to a wire that is plugged into something (USB cable port), and then see something representing the flow of energy from the switch to the device, you may have a much easier time of understanding or comprehending it. To take it one step further, you could focus on what you believe to be the five most important words: switch, port, linkage, energy, flow.

If you attach prior knowledge to those words, you may have something like this in your brain:

switch: A light switch on a wall, on or off, is the first thing I touch in the morning.

port: The second thing I do is I pull my iPhone out of the charger port.

linkage: I’m able to see the chain- the one you might be wearing around your neck- when I turn on the light switch in the morning.

energy: The light turns on with the switch in the morning, using energy.

flow: I go back and forth between my bedroom to my kitchen to get ready in the morning. That is flow.

Now, if I’ve allowed my brain to “see” the passage and I’ve also processed the key terms in my working knowledge with items from my prior knowledge, can I more easily remember what I’ve read, comprehend it and, further, try to understand its value to me?

Working Memory Brain-Concept

What if, as teachers, we began each class period with a warm-up designed to strengthen students’ working memory?

Procedure: Flash project a paragraph to work on strengthening students’ working knowledge. The students must read the paragraph in one minute. In that minute, they should visualize it and pick five important words that they will process in their working memory . Next, give them a task not related to the paragraph. About five minutes later ask them to write a summary statement for the paragraph from the beginning of the period. They would be directed to use the imagery they created and the words they chose to process it.

Click to download an example PowerPoint warm-up using text from the unit of study Busting Up Bullying. Download: Working Memory Sample Powerpoint

Join us next week for Pat’s follow-up using Key Word Notes with working memory.

This warm-up is inspired by a video by Peter Doolittle on TedTalks (Peter Doolittle: How Your Working Memory Makes Sense of the World, November 2013)

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