Improving working memory and attention in primary school students

30 August 2017

Memory Mates is a new program for primary schools that helps children who experience working memory and attention difficulties. 

Children in a classroom listening to a teacher. Image: iStock

An evaluation of Memory Mates showed improvements for students in maths and spelling. Image: iStock

A University of Sydney and NSW Department of Education program to improve primary school children’s attention and memory has produced significant improvements in maths and spelling, according to an evaluation of a pilot program in thirteen classes across six schools.

Students with low working memory can feel overloaded with instructions and information, reducing their ability to cope in class. Past research* has found that these difficulties are experienced by 10 to 15 percent of students.

The University’s Associate Professor Susan Colmar collaborated with NSW Department of Education Senior Psychologists Nash Davis and Linda Sheldon to develop the Memory Mates program, which trains teachers to support primary school children to adopt and use ten attention and working memory strategies.

“Memory Mates strategies are introduced, taught and supported in their everyday use within the classroom,” said Associate Professor Colmar.

Mr Davis said: “The program works by explicitly teaching attention and working memory strategies to unlock and enhance student learning."

The ten ‘Memory Mates’ are depicted on the program’s website and displayed in classrooms as accessible icons, and are provided to students. The icons detail approaches such as active listening, self-talk, linking the new information to existing knowledge, time management, and visualisation.

While a body of evidence details the link between working memory and academic achievement, there has been very little research on the effect of classroom-based working memory programs. Associate Professor Colmar outlined the impact of Memory Mates in the classroom in recent papers co-authored with Mr Davis and Ms Sheldon for the Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools.

“The program is typically introduced to a whole class, with students experiencing attention and working memory difficulties benefiting most from it. However, our research confirms most students enjoy and use the Memory Mates strategies,” said Associate Professor Colmar.  “Teachers also find the program, aiming to explicitly teach students attention and working memory strategies, very helpful.”

Resources from the Memory Mates program have been made available for free on a website launched at the University of Sydney:

"The new Memory Mates website gives students the learning tools to use independently in the classroom and at home," said Linda Sheldon.

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)