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Lucy used to teach undergraduate level mathematics. This difficult material required an understanding of how mathematical concepts link together. Semester after semester, she watched as students struggled. But almost invariably, each semester, there would be one or two “star” students for whom mathematics was straightforward – even easy. It was clear that this student – call him Nelson – or whoever the fast thinks were that semester – had something like race-car brains. Most learners are race cars on some topics and hikers on others. Or midway between fast and slow in their learning – the key point is that there are different types of learners present in every classroom. To teach inclusively, today’s teachers must figure out how best to differentiate instruction to assist all the learners in their class. Speed, however, is not necessarily an advantage. The race-car driver gets to the finish line quickly – but everything goes by in a blur. The hiker, on the other hand, is much slower. But the hiker can reach out and touch the leaves on the trees etc. It’s an entirely different experience from that of the race-car driver – and in some ways, much richer and deeper.

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As long as the information is lobbing back and forth between the front and back of the brain, it stays alive in working memory. The roundabout movement of the information is it’s being tossed back and forth in working memory is why students can hold only so much information in their minds at once. Children have limited working memory. As children mature, their working memory increases. By the time they are fourteen, they have, on average, and adult-sized working memory. Students with working memory deficits often struggle as tasks get more demanding. They also lose track when it comes to more complex activities.


The more assistance working memory gets from the prior knowledge stored in long-term memory, the easier it is for students, especially students with less working memory capacity, to learn new material. Background training. It increases the size of the pieces of information that your working memory can hold. The transformative effect of education is not that it changes students’ working memory capacity. Education instead changes the amount of knowledge held in long-term memory.

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    Strategies to help students with lesser-capacity working memory

  • Be brief and as linguistically simple as possible with your directions. Lengthy instructions will likely be forgotten
  • Make sure your students are looking at when you are giving directions
  • Give instructions one at a time, including “step checks” to make sure everyone is with you – asking students to buddy up and make sure their buddy is keeping up.
  • Provide instructions on the board or as a checklist on students’ desks for them to refer to while completing an assignment
  • Use mnemonics (memory tricks) to enable students to recall larger pieces of information more easily
  • Supply spellings of unfamiliar and challenging words to students as they respond to a writing prompt


The term inclusivity means reaching out to include those whoa re commonly marginalized or excluded. An inclusive classroom describes teaching students who receive special education services and general education students in the same classroom. Learning is not the same for everyone, and a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works for every brain. Because working memory capacities and background knowledge can vary dramatically from student to student, the instruction teachers provide shouldn’t look the same for everyone. Enter differentiation. Differentiation means teaching the same content and skills to all students but using different approaches to meet individual needs.


Information in working memory is limited; too many pieces of information at once, and the mind can be overwhelmed. The neutral links of long-term memory can activate and extend working memory. Within any one classroom, there is a great deal of variability in working memory capacity among students (resulting in differences in learning speed). Breaking information and activities into smaller conceptual parts will combat too-heavy demands on students’ working memory.