Working Memory & Metacognitive Skills

Beth Lawrence, MS, CCC-SLP

A significant component of working memory treatment is what is called, metacognitive training.  Students (with learning difficulties) do not naturally bring to the learning process a sense of self-awareness, reflection, and task analysis that fosters an appreciation of what is needed to be successful within different academic contexts.  (Wong, 1994; Wong, Wong, & Bienkinsop, 1989).  According to Alvo, 1990, “Metacognition is the process of planning, assessing and monitoring one’s own thinking; the pinnacle of mental functioning.”   In other words, being able to understand our brains and the processes that are required to accomplish varying tasks, as well as understanding what strategies should be employed for a variety of tasks.

“Metacognition is the process of planning, assessing and monitoring one’s own thinking; the pinnacle of mental functioning.”

Most of us perform a variety of tasks without ever being aware of what our brains are doing to successfully accomplish the tasks.  Using the example from last week, if we have to repeat, “3-7-9-4,” most of us have no trouble repeating the sequence.  Then, if we are asked to rank order the numbers from least to greatest, we might take a few seconds, look up, perhaps, then say, “3-4-7-9.”   There is actually quite a bit going on inside our minds as we attempt this later task, but we simply code-switch and do it naturally.

If this type of code-switching does not happen automatically, the results can have an enormous impact on one’s ability to listen to lectures, comprehend what is read, follow longer directions, take notes, write complex sentences and organized paragraphs to name a few.  Many of our students approach these types of tasks in the same way they approach a short-term memory task, which is impossible to do successfully.  Generally speaking, our brains can only hold between 5 and 9 bits of information in short-term memory.  Unless one actively engages with the information, dumping the unnecessary bits, actively analyzing and storing the important bits in working memory, the cogwheels get “clogged”. 

We have to approach these types of tasks using a different set of strategies.  But because our students do not do this automatically, they often do not realize there are a whole set of strategies to employ.  In our next blog, we are excited to share some of these strategies with you!