By Glenda Thorne, Ph.D.
Students who have difficulty with memory may have deficits in encoding or registering information in memory, in storing or consolidating information in long-term memory, or in retrieving or accessing information from long-term memory.
Problems with Encoding Information in Short-term Memory
In order for information to be encoded in memory, it must first be attended to. Thus, children who have deficits in attention often have trouble with this first memory process. Many children and adults with attention deficits report that they have trouble remembering events that took place within the past 24 hours. Students also often have “gaps” in their knowledge of basic skills because they tune in and out in the classroom. They are often reluctant to engage in tasks, such as schoolwork and homework, which require sustained mental effort. Even when children with attention deficits attend to the appropriate information, they may only attend at a very superficial level. Therefore, they fail to elaborate on the incoming information. They do not activate prior knowledge and relate it to the to-be-learned information. For example, if a student is reading about the Battle of New Orleans, he may fail to retrieve information he already knows about war, New Orleans or Andrew Jackson from his long-term memory store. This failure to sufficiently elaborate on incoming information often results in deficits in long-term memory storage and retrieval.
Students who have deficits in encoding information in memory may have trouble remembering directions or what they have just read. They may also have trouble remembering what their teachers said during class lectures. Further, they may have trouble remembering what others said during conversations. Their deficits may be more pronounced in certain sensory systems or modalities, such as visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Most of the children I see in the clinic who are having school problems have relative weaknesses in their auditory short-term memory, and because much of the information that is presented in the classroom is presented in an auditory/verbal format, this weakness leads to significant functional problems for them.
Often children who have encoding deficits fail to use memory strategies. For example, they may not form visual images when reading. They may not “chunk” or recode incoming information into semantic or meaningful units.
Problems with Working Memory
Deficits in working memory may be manifested in a number of ways in the school setting. Students may have trouble with following through on directions even if they understood them. They may have trouble with solving math calculation problems that involve multiple steps, such as long division or problems in algebra, because in order to solve these problems they need to access information about math facts from long-term memory while remembering what they have just done and what they need to do next. They often have tremendous trouble with word problems in math because they are unable to keep all the information on their mental “plate” while they are deciding what information is most relevant and what process they need to use to solve the problem. They may have functional problems with reading comprehension because they fail to remember the sentences they just read while reading the sentence they are reading. Writing composition is often an arduous task for them. It requires them to retrieve their ideas from long-term memory while simultaneously recalling rules about capitalization, punctuation and grammar and writing their ideas down. In class, they must remember what their teacher has said while taking notes. They must remember the teacher’s questions while searching long-term memory for the answer. If they are looking up a word in the dictionary, they must remember the word while looking it up. Similarly, when they are answering questions in the back of their textbook chapters, they must remember the question while searching the chapter for the answer.
Students who have difficulty with working memory also experience problems with many higher order thinking tasks such as problem solving and comparing and contrasting ideas. When solving problems, students must be able to hold the components of the problem in mind while generating possible solutions and making decisions about which solution would be best. When comparing and contrasting ideas, they must be able to hold the information about both ideas/concepts in mind while making comparison between the two. Thus, the demands on working memory not only for school children but also for all of us are endless.
Problems with Long-term Memory Storage
Deficits in the encoding process lead to problems with consolidation or storage of information in long-term memory. Students who have deficits in long-term memory storage frequently rely too much on rote memorization. This strategy may be adequate for keeping information in short-term memory, but it leads to poor storage in long-term memory.
If we think of our memory as a network of connections, when we place something in this network, it is best if we have multiple pathways to access it. One way to create multiple pathways is to place the new information in several categories. For example, if the class is studying alligators, a student who actively elaborates by categorization would think about the alligator he saw in the reptile house at the zoo and would categorize alligators as reptiles. He might think about the Honey Island Swamp Tour that he went on with his family and categorize the alligator with “things that live in swamps”. Further, he may have eaten alligator soup and categorize it with “unusual things to eat”. If new information is not categorized, there are not multiple pathways through which to reach it, thus recall may be very slow and sometimes impossible.
Students who have deficits in long-term memory may also have trouble with recalling what the memory research literature has called paired associates. Paired associates are two entities that “hang together”. For example, a name and a face are paired associates. Other examples of paired associates are states and their capitols, countries and their continents, language sounds and language symbols, vocabulary words and their definitions and historical events and the dates they occurred.
Additional storage deficits in the semantic memory system include problems with remembering rules, such as rules of grammar, punctuation and capitalization. They might have trouble remembering spelling rules or the rules for sounding out words.
Deficits in memory storage may be more problematic for information in certain modalities or formats. We know that we have both auditory and visual short-term memory systems. We are also able to store information in visual, spatial and visual-spatial format.
Deficits in categorization or storage of paired associates fall under the conceptual umbrella of the declarative semantic memory system. Students who have deficits in memory storage may also have trouble with storing information about events or episodes in their lives. For example, they may have no recollection of what they ate for lunch earlier in the afternoon. They may not remember that they went to the zoo while visiting their grandmother last summer.
Deficits may also occur in the storage of information in the nondeclarative memory system, especially with memory of skills or procedures. For example, children may insufficiently store the cognitive procedures for solving long division or algebraic problems in math. They may not adequately store the motor procedures for writing letters, for tying their shoes or for riding their bikes. These latter skills also involve the haptic or kinesthetic memory system.
Problems with Long-term Memory Retrieval
Children who have deficits in the retrieval of information from long-term memory more often than not receive grades that do not match the time and effort they spend in study or preparing for tests. These children and their parents frequently tell me that the students “knew the information the night before the test, but could not remember it when taking the test”. Students who have trouble with memory recall often report “test anxiety”. Test anxiety is also often a common complaint of many students who have attention deficits. The two frequently co-occur.
The inability to rapidly and efficiently recall information from long-term memory when it is needed may be associated with deficits in encoding and storage of information. Thus, any of the problems discussed in the previous section – failure to categorize, failure to store paired associates, trouble with the storage of rules, trouble with storing information presented in specific modalities or formats, difficulty with storing information associated with life events or episodes and problems with storing information for performing skills and procedures, both cognitive and motor – will lead to deficits in memory retrieval. If categorization of to-be-learned information is weak, the pathways through which to access this information will be limited and, thus, retrieval will be slow and difficult. If one piece of information that “hangs” with another is unable to be efficiently retrieved, school is likely to be an uncomfortable place to be in (e.g., a student remembers his teacher’s face, but is unable to recall her name).
Often students who have trouble with recalling rules, especially those in written language, may perform adequately when writing single sentences. However, when they are required to write paragraph or story length text, their performance deteriorates. They misspell words, fail to place punctuation where it belongs and/or do not capitalize words that should be capitalized. In fact, it is often possible to differentiate storage and retrieval problems by examining a student’s work both at the sentence and the paragraph levels.
Students who have trouble with the storage of information presented in specific formats also have weaknesses with the recall of information in this same format. For example, a student may be really good with remembering the names of all of the states and their capitols (paired associates), but she may never be able to remember their exact location on a map because this information is in a visual-spatial format. This same student’s recall may be greatly enhanced by having her put together a big spongy puzzle of the United States or walk from state to state on a big rug or carpet that has a picture or drawing of the United States on it, thereby engaging the haptic or kinesthetic memory system. Some students have great memories of spatial arrays, but poor memories of sequences of events, such as the chronological order of events in history.
Deficits in the recall of events or episodes may manifest themselves through failure to recall what was said during social conversations or what was done while on a field trip. Students who have problems with the recall of skills or procedures may forget or skip steps when solving math problems. They might forget how to form letters when writing. Some of the children I work with will ask questions such as, “How do you make the letter k” when writing.
In addition to deficits in recall, students may have trouble with recognition of information in memory. For example, some of the students I evaluate have trouble with math because they do not, among other things, recognize patterns in math problems. Thus, every problem is like a new problem to them because they do not see the similarities between the one they just solved and the new one. This deficit is often associated with what some teachers and parents call “math anxiety”. Children with pattern recognition problems may also fail to perceive reoccurring themes in stories.
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