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Monday, May 18, 2009

What did I just say?

Tom is standing in the supermarket. He has been asked by Sal to pick up a few things on his way home from work.

He knows he needs to get bread and milk because he remembers having nothing to eat for breakfast this morning. But he knows he was asked to buy something else.

Something for the bathroom.

Toilet paper? Toothpaste? Shampoo? Soap? Razor?

He knows he needs to buy one of these things because it has nearly run out.

He closed his eyes, tried to visualise or “hear” what Sal had said… but all he could hear was Sal saying, “Make sure you write it down so you don’t forget!”

And he had said, “I’ll remember… it’s only three things!”

But that was before he had fought peak hour traffic, met an old friend, taken two phone calls and fought with a fellow-shopper for a parking spot.

He got home with bread, milk and toilet paper (because he felt that was more important than the other toiletry items).

Sal called out, “Did you get my shampoo?”


What makes us remember instructions?

When recalling things we have been told, we usually paraphrase or summarise the idea rather than repeating in our heads exactly what we have been told. That is because we usually only hold small snippets of information in our “working memory” for a short period of time.

Information in our working memory is easily accessed. Our working memory is where we put the information we are using. With our working memory we usually have to drag the information out of our long term memories so we can use it.

The capacity of our working memory

There are different theories about working memory, but Baddeley (2006) discusses this in depth. He states that working memory is for temporary storage of information. He also discusses that theorists suggest that it possibly involves four systems:
1- for processing sound and speech
2 -for processing visual information
3 – for helping us select what information we need to pay attention to
4 – to help us link what is in our working memory with our long-term memory.

While it seems that nobody is exactly sure of the capacity of each system, it is estimated that if we don’t link it to our long term memory in a few seconds, it can be lost. The only way we can save that information for later is if we file it carefully in a way that makes it easy to access later.

A good filing system

One way for us to have more success in storing instructions is through rehearsal. For example, if Tom had spent time chanting “Milk, bread, shampoo. Milk, bread, shampoo” to himself he could possibly have had more success in remembering what he needed. This is because the information would have been in his working memory for longer, with more time to process and link it to ideas and patterns in his long term memory.

Another way is to chunk information together. One good example is when we remember sets of three numbers in a nine digit phone number, instead of trying to remember the whole number at once. Again, this is because we are putting short chunks of information into our working memory, instead of overloading it with a large, unwieldy amount of information.

Linking with what we know:
But one of the most important ways of remembering what we have been told is by quickly making links between the instructions and what we already know, or what is important to us. That is why Tom remembered the milk and bread but not the shampoo.

Poor filing systems:

If you have trouble paying attention, controlling your thoughts, or have a small working memory capacity, then you will struggle to focus on information long enough to be able to retrieve all the information later. Their working memory may be overloaded (Hagermann, Hay and Levy, 2002; Gathercole, Lamont, & Alloway, 2006).

So that may be why you find a child with ADHD or ADD, when given instructions to get their books, sit at their desk and get out their pencil, wandering around the room with their book.

Anxiety can also cause difficulties with the working memory processes (Terry, 2006).

Children with developmental delays (intellectual disabilities), including children with Down Syndrome, will also have trouble with the processing systems of working memory. However, it is possible that most of their difficulties come with not being able to generalise or link new information with what they already know. They may also struggle to develop good memory strategies (Terry, 2006).

Again, this may mean that they cannot retrieve what they have been told… and this is in addition to possibly struggling with language patterns and vocabulary.

It is also important to remember that we all have different working memory capacities. Part of that is about the strategies we use, but there are many other reasons that we don’t fully understand (Terry, 2006).

So when you give some instructions, make sure you think about how you are catering to your child/children’s working memory.

Next time we will think about what it takes to act on instructions you have been given.


Baddeley, A. (2006). Working Memory: An Overview. In S.Pickering (Ed) Working Memory and Education, p3-33. Academic Press: London.

Gathercole, S.E., Lamont, E., and Alloway, T.P. (2006). Working Memory in the Classroom. In S.Pickering (Ed) Working Memory and Education, 219-240. Academic Press: London.

Hagemann, E., Hay, D.A., and Levy, F. (2002). Cognitive Aspects and Learning. In S. Sandberg (Ed), Hyperactivity and Attention Disorders of Childhood, p214-241. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Terry, W.S. (2006). Learing and Memory: Basic Principles, Processes and Procedures. Pearson Education: USA.

If you have any good websites that address this issue, please share them. I ran out of time to do some searching... maybe I will add some later.


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