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Mind Your Memory

by Eleanor Lopez 1 May 2011
Mind Your Memory

Working memory is critical for a variety of activities at school, from complex subjects such as reading comprehension, mental arithmetic, and word problems to simple tasks like copying from the board and navigating around school.

Socrates once claimed that the art of writing things down would be detrimental to mankind because they would no longer remember from within. And the farseeing philosopher was right on the money.

Take a look at your child’s desk area for example. There are calendars, note-books, diaries, not to mention hand-held gadgets that have every imaginable reminder functions. One might argue that these ‘supports’ are necessary in this day and age, however we little realize how it’s affecting the development of their working memory.

“Working memory is our ability to remember and manage information”, explains Professor Tracy Alloway referring to a post-it note as an example. Not only does it allow you to ‘scribble’ bits of information that you wish to remember, working memory also helps you to process and sift through the information making it is an essential part of learning.

Professor Alloway, the Director of Memory & Learning in the Lifespan at University of Stirling, UK was in town recently to conduct a workshop to help improve memory especially for academic excellence. “Working memory measures our ability to learn, rather than what we have already learned,” Prof Alloway. She asked participants to read these three sentences and decide if they are true or false:

-Bananas live in water
-Flowers smell nice
-Dogs have four legs

Then without looking at the sentences they were asked to remember the last word in each order. Can you? Well if you could, then your working memory is like that of an average eight year old.

And if you couldn’t? Jeyaraman Seenivasagam of Success Edge believes that natural memory cannot be drastically improved; “However there are tools that we can learn to aid our memory. It is like using a tool to help us lift an object; it doesn’t make us stronger but helps get the job done.”

Having trained more than 26,000 people in the region ranging from students to top management, the memory systems enthusiast advices people to make a conscious decision to concentrate and try and relate new information to something we are familiar with or already stored in our memory ‘bank’.

However there is some hope on the horizon. “Brain training is a growing and exciting new area in scientific research now,” Prof Alloway assures. “There is a lot of evidence of our brain’s plasticity; that it can actually shrink or grow depending on what we do. For example studies show that taxi drivers’ brains “grow on the job” as they build up detailed information they need to navigate around the city.”

Good news indeed for many adults who have trouble retaining information but for many it may already be too late. Prof Alloway has conducted a study of thousands of individuals from five to 85 years old in order to determine at what stage in development the working memory kicks in. “The most dramatic growth is during childhood. These years are crucial as working memory increases more in the first ten years than it does over the lifespan, “she says. The working memory increases steadily right up to our 20s at which point it reaches its peak and plateaus. And then begins the dreaded decline.

How does this relate to the classroom one may well ask. Prof Alloway stresses the importance of developing the working memory at a young age. “Working memory is the foundation of good grades and a successful life beyond the classroom. Without it, students struggle, and with it they can dramatically improve their classroom performance.”

Seenivasagam is also keen to point out the co-relation between memory and reading speed. “When we read faster than our normal speed which is approximately 120 to 200 words per minute (for adults), our concentration, comprehension and retention (of information) gets better.”

For young children, he suggests the use of visuals to help them remember better. “Using pictures or any physical thing would help them relate and make strong links. For example, when teaching numbers, use buttons to count, add or subtract.” He also recommends memory games like card matching which is fun but requires a conscious effort to remember.

It is important to determine whether the student is experiencing any memory problems to begin with. Seenivasagam raises the question of how one defines what it means to be below one’s expected level of performance. “There are many barriers to estimate a child’s potential accurately, and the presence of a learning disability is by itself a very significant barrier.”

Prof Alloway suggests standardised assessments that are suitable for educators to screen their students for working memory problems, such as the Automated Working Memory Assessment (published by Pearson Assessment) that allows non-specialist assessors such as classroom teachers to screen their students quickly and effectively.

It is also a good way of identifying children with special educational needs. At KidzGrow, programmes are designed to help children maximise their learning capabilities through the combination of neuroscience, technology and education.

Saw Hooi Chuen, director of KidzGrow adds that the programmes are individually designed based on the child’s learning profile. “Working memory issues do not always occur in isolation, as such we will have to determine the child’s profile before we recommend (a programme). Jungle Memory and / or Fast For Word would be a good choice of programs. These programs also work on other issues like attention, processing and sequencing. “Be it short attention span, difficulty reading, ADHD or even autism, experts are at hand to evaluate, understand and resolve the issues.

KidzGrow is offering a 20% discount for the Jungle Memory programme for Expatriate Lifestyle readers. They will also be organising a workshop “The Importance of Learning Skills” at their offices in Sri Hartamas, KL and Weld Quay, Penang on May 21.


5 Jalan Sri Hartamas 7, KL
Tel: 03–6201 0358
39C Chong Thuah Building
Weld Quay, George Town, Penang
Tel: 04–2633 229

Success Edge
Tel: 03–7981 4837

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