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The Role of Working Memory in Learning Mathematics

Memory and learning

Skills such as memory, attention, or information processing speed are important indicators of academic learning. Of all these general cognitive abilities, various studies have shown that working memory plays an important role in the process of learning (Gathercole et al, 2004; Passolunghi & Lanfranchi, 2012).

Working memory supports a series of cognitive tasks that require active maintenance and simultaneous manipulation of information. In daily life, we use this memory system while we do different activities. For example, we need working memory skills when we have to remember the shopping list, reading a book, and also when we listen to a person speaking to us and prepare our response. Indeed, on these occasions, we must remember certain information and recover other information to process and understand it.

In the school environment, while reading, writing, or calculating numbers, children use working memory as a mental space in which information is kept active during manipulation (Gathercole and Alloway, 2008).

A malfunction in working memory often hinders the way for some children to face different school activities. In fact, they tend to forget instructions, especially if they are long, they can forget parts of text while writing, and in general, they are not able to manage the storage and simultaneous manipulation of information. Of all children with working memory problems, more than 80% have a specific learning disorder, such as dyscalculia, which confirms the strong predictive value of working memory skills in school performance.

Working memory and learning mathematics

Working memory plays an essential role in children’s mathematical learning (De Smedt et al., 2009). In fact, working memory processes allow us to complete even the simplest mathematical tasks such as comparing numbers. Children must recover the meaning of the numeric symbols (i.e. the quantities that correspond to the digits), maintain the information in memory and at the same time performing the comparison task to identify the largest number. This same memory process is needed for more complex mathematical tasks.

working memory

Imagine that the class is asked to complete an exercise using mental math (43 x 5). In order to find the answer, it is necessary to keep the two numbers active in working memory, recover, and apply the rules of multiplication and at a time, maintain the partial results of the calculation in memory (40 x 5 = 200 and 3 x 5 = 15). Finally, it is necessary to add the products saved in working memory (200 + 15 = 215), obtaining the correct result. Without working memory, it would be impossible to complete mental activities, which is essential to maintain information in memory while processing other information.

Mathematical problems are another example of a complex mathematical task that needs considerable memory resources. For example, to understand a word problem children have to integrate the new information read with the information already present in memory. In addition, it is necessary to pay attention to and remember only the relevant information present in the text, activating a process of inhibition of irrelevant information. On the other hand, in order to reach the solution, it is also necessary to create the correct mental representation of the problem, a process that requires visuospatial memory skills.

working memory

Difficulties with memory for children with dyscalculia

Working memory is a system with limited capacity. When a mathematical task requires processing or actively maintaining too much information in memory for a child, there will be a loss of information and consequently low performance. Children with dyscalculia show critical problems at the working memory level, especially with visuospatial memory (Szucs et al, 2013). To make it easier for children with this type of problem to perform the mathematics exercises proposed in class, it is necessary to develop intervention programs designed to prevent information overload in working memory. As we will see in future posts, different activities can be carried out to promote mathematical learning opportunities in children with limited working memory capacity.


  • De Smedt, B., Janssen, R., Bouwens, K., Verschaffel, L., Boets, B., & Ghesquière, P. (2009). Working memory and individual differences in mathematics achievement: A longitudinal study from first grade to second grade. Journal of experimental child psychology103(2), 186-201.
  • Gathercole, S. E., Pickering, S. J., Knight, C., & Stegmann, Z. (2004). Working memory skills and educational attainment: Evidence from national curriculum assessments at 7 and 14 years of age. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition18(1), 1-16.
  • Gathercole, S., & Alloway, T. P. (2008). Working memory and learning: A practical guide for teachers. Sage.
  • Passolunghi, M. C., & Lanfranchi, S. (2012). Domain‐specific and domain‐general precursors of mathematical achievement: A longitudinal study from kindergarten to first grade. British Journal of Educational Psychology82(1), 42-63.
  • Szucs, D., Devine, A., Soltesz, F., Nobes, A., & Gabriel, F. (2013). Developmental dyscalculia is related to visuo-spatial memory and inhibition impairment. cortex49(10), 2674-2688.

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