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Dec 07, 2015

What do these activities have in common?

  1. Participating in a lively conversation with one or more people
  2. Mentally comparing prices for 2 different brands and sizes of breakfast cereal
  3. Taking notes during a lecture

If you noticed the spoiler title of this post, you probably said “They all involve using working memory.” But what makes working memory an important Note_taking_challenges.jpgfactor in executive functioning? As Executive Function coaches, we are often asked what working memory is and how we help students who have weaknesses in this skill.

Three Types of Memory

We can think of memory as having three distinct categories. First, there’s long-term memory. That’s the skill that helps you recall your first grade teacher’s name or the state capitol of Nebraska. Next, there’s short-term memory. This skill helps you remember a phone number long enough to unlock your phone and press the right numbers on the keypad. Finally, working memory is the ability that allows us to hold information in our mind and manipulate, or work with it, in some manner for a brief time. It’s a tougher task than just remembering that phone number, and it’s also distinct from the mental filing and retrieval tasks of long term memory.

In the conversation example from #1 above, working memory allows you to remember your brilliant point about genetically modified salmon as your sister-in-law interrupts you to shift the topic to the plight of the North American honey bee. In school, a similar situation can happen in a fast-paced classroom where students must pay attention to other students’ questions and comments while they wait to contribute their own.

In the second example about shopping, you must calculate cost per ounce mentally for each product to see which is the better deal, while also considering if it’s worth the grief you’ll hear from your kids about getting a “boring” cereal. Beyond math class itself, students engage in these mental calculations to determine their chances of doing well on a test, despite being blindsided by a 10 point question and a couple 3 point fill-ins. Kids also use working memory to figure out if they can get away with sleeping an extra 14 minutes if they skip a shower and eat a banana on the bus instead of sitting down for breakfast.

The third scenario (see, you’re using working memory if you resisted the urge to look back), involving note-taking during lectures, bears special consideration because it’s ever present in the lives of students. Let’s dive deeper into this task to see why it can be so challenging for students with working memory weaknesses.

The Many Skills Involved With Note-taking 

Step into the Nikes of a typical high school student for a few minutes.

Imagine you are sitting in biology class trying your best to take notes. Mr. Healey is an awesome teacher, but sometimes he can talk fast, especially when it’s on a topic he’s really pumped about (like mitochondria... go figure) You are likely doing the following working memory and attention tasks:

  • Listening for important phrases to guide what to jot down: “It’s important to note”; “As I have mentioned before”; “Don’t forget to”; “The best way to”; “The most critical factor”
  • Selecting the words and phrases that are most essential to meaning (editing small words out)
  • Silently repeating the phrase until you can write it out
  • Switching attention back and forth from writing to listening for the next chunk of information
  • Recalling when you’ve already written down a detail that the teacher is repeating for emphasis

Working memory also helps you keep your motivation and focus because you can envision a future in which these notes will come in handy. Every time you feel the urge to zone out a little reminder pops into your brain and says “Hey, pay attention because you want to make honor roll this term and a big exam on this stuff is coming up soon.”

Consider also what factors could interfere with your note-taking. Maybe you are upset over an argument with your best friend. You keep replaying the conversation in your head and note that it’s hard to focus on cellular respiration when it feels like a social disaster is approaching with the force of a tsunami. Or that guy next to you keeps clicking his stupid pen and making inane jokes with his buddy. Now you need to selectively force your brain to block out their nonsense while you double down and focus on Mr Healey’s flow chart on the smartboard.

How Executive Function Coaches Help Students with Note-taking Challenges

So, as you pop back into your adult self, you have a clearer picture of the distinct skills needed for taking good lecture notes and how integral working memory is to that process. So how do Executive Function coaches help students with working memory weaknesses take better lecture notes?

  • Sometimes the answer is technology: The Livescribe pen, for example, is a resource some students use successfully. This high-tech pen and paper allows users to digitally convert handwritten notes and record lectures in one small device.
  • Sometimes the answer is in helping a student seek out accommodations for which they qualify: Teachers may be able to provide pre-printed notes with blanks to fill in throughout the lecture, to maintain a student’s engagement while decreasing working memory demands.
  • Sometimes the answer is in better strategies for note-taking, such as sitting near the front of the classroom to minimize distractions, learning how to create a personal database of abbreviations or symbols, or using 2-column notes to keep content organized by topic and details.

Working memory ability is more complex than basic recall of a fact or figure. This important skill is involved in activities such as note-taking, reading, writing, and even social scenarios — areas near and sometimes not-so-dear to students. Kids who struggle with weak working memory need a variety of tools to keep pace with their academic demands, whether they’re dealing with two independent variables in a chemistry lab or reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wordy sentences. That’s where coaching makes a difference. Executive Function coaches zero in on strategies to help students feel confident...even when Mr. Healey gets riled up over RNA transcription.

About the Author

Jackie Hebert

Jackie Hebert is the Director of Marketing for Beyond BookSmart. Whether it's managing our websites, overseeing our social media content, authoring and editing blog articles, or hosting webinars, Jackie oversees all Marketing activities at Beyond BookSmart. Before joining Beyond BookSmart in 2010, Jackie was a Speech-Language Pathologist at Needham High School. She earned her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Boston University, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.



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