What Causes Poor Working Memory? (6 Ways to Fix It!) | Iris Reading
What Causes Poor Working Memory

What Causes Poor Working Memory? (6 Ways to Fix It!)

What Causes Poor Working Memory

Do you often forget important details like phone numbers, to-do lists, or instructions for a task? Poor working memory might be the culprit. 

Working memory allows us to temporarily store and manipulate information in our minds. It’s an essential function that enables us to complete tasks like driving and studying for exams.   

But what causes poor working memory, and how can you fix it?

Poor working memory can be caused by psychological stress, aging, genetics, brain injuries, and the type of information. To improve working memory, use strategies like chunking, memory aids, the Method of Loci, spaced repetition, and building long-term knowledge. 

In this guide, we’ll dive into the concept of working memory, its importance, and what causes poor working memory. We’ll also explore ways to improve working memory. 

Let’s dive in!

What is working memory?

Working memory is the part of your brain that helps you temporarily hold and manipulate information. You can think of it as your brain’s “mental scratchpad” – it’s where you can jot down information that you need to remember for a short time, like a phone number or a list of items you need to buy at the store.  

Researchers Baddeley and Hitch first proposed the concept of working memory in 1974, and it has been extensively studied in cognitive science ever since. Working memory involves several different subsystems that work together to help you process and remember information.

Working memory capacity is crucial in different cognitive tasks, including learning, reasoning, and comprehension. For example, when you’re reading a complicated article, your working memory helps you hold onto the article’s main points in your mind as you read so that you can connect them and understand the overall message.

Why is working memory important?

Working memory helps us stay focused and aware of what’s happening around us. It enables us to complete tasks like driving, writing essays, and countless others. 

Unlike rote memory, which involves memorizing static information passively, working memory is an active process that allows us to use and apply the information we’ve stored mentally. It’s essential for tasks that involve problem-solving, decision-making, and learning.

Working memory comprises three main components: the phonological loop, visuospatial sketch pad, and central executive. 

  • The phonological loop handles auditory information and stores and rehearses sounds, like a phone number.
  • The visuospatial sketch pad processes visual and spatial information, enabling us to imagine things in our mind’s eye, like where the furniture is in a dark room. 
  • The central executive is the team’s captain, deciding which component of working memory should handle which information.

When these components work together effectively, we can complete tasks efficiently and accurately. For example, we use working memory to learn new information, like the alphabet, and to carry out everyday tasks, like taking notes during a meeting.

However, working memory is limited both in capacity and duration. Adults typically only hold six or seven bits of information in their working memory for a few seconds. If the information is lost from working memory, it cannot be retrieved without some form of assistance or repetition.

With a poor working memory capacity, we may struggle with tasks that require us to hold more than one instruction or complete tasks with multiple steps.

What’s the difference between working memory and short-term memory?

Working and short-term memory are related concepts but refer to slightly different things.

Short-term memory allows you to hold on to small amounts of information for a short time, typically a few seconds to a minute or two. 

For example, if someone gives you a phone number and you repeat it in your head long enough to dial it, you’re using your short-term memory.

Short-term memory is also important for performing tasks in the present moment.

Working memory, on the other hand, is a continuous process that helps us make connections with previously acquired information. We use it to perform more complex tasks like learning and solving problems.

What does it mean to have poor working memory?

Having poor working memory means that someone struggles to remember and use information in their head for short periods. Working memory problems make it challenging to focus on and finish tasks that require attention and memory, like doing mental math, following instructions, or writing sentences.

Kids with poor working memory may seem like they’re not paying attention, and they might struggle to remember the steps for a task or follow classroom instructions. Over 80% of kids with poor working memory have difficulties with reading and math, which can lead to poor academic progress and low self-esteem.

Poor working memory can also be associated with other learning and attention issues like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or Dyslexia. It can also result from injuries or trauma to the brain, although this is usually temporary.

Poor working memory can sometimes look like bad behavior. For example, a child may interrupt classmates or seem impulsive, but in reality, they’re just having a hard time retaining the information they need to wait their turn. 

These children may also struggle with mental arithmetic or carrying out steps in a recipe without constant reference to the recipe.

Working memory difficulties can cause many problems in the classroom and beyond. For instance, kids with poor working memory may struggle with planning, problem-solving, and sustained attention.

But despite these difficulties, children and adults with poor working memory typically have normal social relationships, emotional control, and self-esteem and may appear reserved in large group situations.

With proper support and working memory training techniques, people can improve their working memory skills, leading to better academic and career outcomes.

What factors affect working memory?

Various factors can affect working memory, including psychological stress, age, genetics, semantic knowledge, caffeine, and hormones. 

Psychological stress

A recent study looked at the effects of psychological stress and cortisol (a stress hormone) on working memory and discovered that cortisol levels moderated the impact of stress on working memory.

The study discovered that when people are anxious or their minds wander, their working memory functions differently. Anxiety and mind wandering both play separate roles in this relationship.

Type of information 

The capacity of visual working memory is influenced by the type of information to be remembered

Real-world objects are easier to remember than abstract stimuli, possibly because of the semantic knowledge associated with them. 

Furthermore, studies have shown that semantic knowledge does confer a benefit for visual working memory and that the capacity of visual working memory fluctuates depending on what has to be remembered.

Aging and other factors

Aging appears to have modulatory effects on working memory, as do emotion, caffeine, and hormones. Working memory deficits are also common in older individuals and those with mental, developmental, or neurological disorders. 

Traumatic brain injury can also affect working memory, as can decrease in cortical surface area in the right frontal regions. These factors suggest that working memory is affected by various factors throughout one’s life.


A study investigated the genetic structure of both storage and executive functions engaged in a spatial and verbal working memory span task in twins. The study found that individual differences in working memory storage and executive functions were significantly influenced by genes, with heritability estimates all moderately high. 

Executive function is a group of mental abilities that help us handle everyday tasks, control our actions, and reach goals by making plans, staying organized, and paying attention.

The study also found that a large part of the genetic variance in storage and executive functions in both spatial and verbal modalities is due to a common genetic factor that accounts for a significant portion of the variance. 

It’s worth noting that none of the genetic factors identified for working memory appeared to have any impact on cognitive ability.

What impacts does poor working memory have on learning?

Poor working memory influences learning speed. One study revealed that children with sub-average school achievement showed deficits in working memory functioning, independent of intelligence. 

This suggests that working memory is an important predictor of academic success and that individual working memory competencies should be considered when diagnosing and intervening with children with learning problems. 

Over 80% of children with low working memory struggle in reading and mathematics and may make poor academic progress, which can go unnoticed by teachers who often describe them as inattentive or having lower intelligence levels. 

Beyond poor learning, poor working memory can lead to cognitive problems, including deficits in other executive functions like monitoring, planning, problem-solving, and sustained attention.

A study by Durham University found that poor working memory affects about ten percent of school children across all age ranges and is rarely identified by teachers.

How to improve working memory?

One strategy for improving working memory is to break down information into smaller chunks and use multi-sensory strategies to consolidate learning. 

Additionally, memory aids, like task plans and visual aids, can help you recall information. Lastly, building long-term knowledge by reviewing and reinforcing meaning can help improve working memory.

1. Identify your working memory demands and adapt to reduce demands

When teachers have students with poor working memory, they first recognize when the student experiences memory overload. They then modify the lesson structure and content accordingly. You can apply the same strategy to your learning.

For example, if you can only hold one piece of information at a time, you can break down the information into smaller chunks. You can also learn in short bursts instead of one long sitting. 

Additionally, you can use multi-sensory strategies (e.g., using pictures, videos, and text-based information) to improve your chances of remembering.

2. Use memory aids 

You can use memory aids like mnemonics, task plans, and post-it notes to improve your working memory. But before incorporating a memory aid, you must first find out how you learn and what works best for you. 

For example, if you prefer to listen rather than read, you’ll use audio memory aids like music mnemonics or rhyming mnemonics. And if you learn best by handling physical objects, you’ll get your hands on props and other physical aids.

You can also take a course that teaches memory techniques and strategies for improving working memory. These courses can teach you how to use mnemonic devices, visualization techniques, and other memory aids to remember information more effectively.

The Maximizing Memory course provides practical techniques for improving memory, which is particularly useful for students and professionals. The course covers approximately 90 minutes of video content and is compatible with mobile devices. 

Additionally, future content updates are included, and a certificate of completion is awarded upon completion.

3. Use the chunking technique

Chunking refers to breaking down large units into smaller memorable units. Probably the most common example of chunking occurs in phone numbers. For example, a phone number sequence of 2-3-1-2-3-4 would be chunked into 231-234.

To use the chunking technique for memorization, you need to find connections between different items and group them. 

For example, look for commonalities between the pieces of information you need to remember and group them by theme, color, or shape. Try to use multiple grouping techniques to compound the amount of information you can retrieve from each chunk. 

Additionally, challenge your brain by giving yourself different lists and trying to make chunks out of them to practice and improve your skills.

Here’s a detailed guide about the chunking technique.

4. Use the Method of Loci 

Loci is a Latin term meaning places. The Method of Loci is a memorization technique that involves associating information with familiar physical spaces to make it easier to recall. 

To use this technique, first identify a few places you know extremely well and can easily move through with your eyes closed. Then, create a mental floor plan and a linear journey through each place, ensuring the order is chronological and logical. Number specific locations along the journey and mark them on your floor plan. 

Next, associate each term or bit of information you need to memorize with each memory slot. Then, try to find a connection between the information and the memory slot, whether visually, chronologically, or in any other way that works for you. 

Finally, take a memory walk through your palace, following the same route every time and replaying the scenes associated with each memory slot to remember the information.

5. Utilize spaced repetition 

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing time intervals between subsequent reviews of previously learned material to enhance retention. It is more effective than massed repetition (i.e., cramming).

So, if you want to use spaced repetition to improve your memory, you need to do a few things. 

First, you should plan how often you want to study the information. Then, you need to review and learn the information for the first time. After that, you should recall the information at the first spacing interval. 

Finally, you should keep recalling the information at the intervals you’ve chosen. It’s important to remember that spaced repetition takes time, so don’t expect instant results. 

Be consistent with your intervals, even if it doesn’t seem like you’re making progress at first. The goal is to build up your knowledge over time.

6. Build long-term knowledge

Building long-term knowledge is an important strategy for improving working memory. By repeating information or concepts, you can strengthen your memory and transfer the information from your working memory to the long-term memory. 

For example, a researcher used this strategy to support a learner’s (Jimmy’s) working memory. The researcher reviewed multi-syllable words with him each day and reinforced their meanings. Jimmy was able to recall the meaning of the words more easily, and even use them effectively in his writing assignments. 

This repetition and reinforcement helped to solidify the knowledge in his long-term memory, making it easier for him to recall and use in the future. 

You can use this strategy repeatedly, exposing yourself to important concepts and pushing yourself to recall and apply the information in different contexts. It can strengthen your working memory and build long-term knowledge that you can use in your academic and everyday life.

Improve your working memory with the right memory aid today!

Working memory plays a crucial role in our daily lives, enabling us to complete tasks like driving, writing essays, and studying for exams. 

However, poor working memory can have significant impacts on learning and cognitive functions, leading to poor academic progress and low self-esteem. 

Various factors, including stress, age, genetics, and caffeine, can affect working memory. 

Fortunately, there are strategies, support, and training available to improve working memory skills, such as using memory aids, chunking, utilizing spaced repetition, and building long-term knowledge. 

The Maximizing Memory course is a great option for students and professionals to learn practical techniques and strategies for improving their working memory. Take action today to improve your working memory and achieve better academic and social outcomes.

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