25 Feb 2017

‘An Interview with the Expert’…On Working Memory

‘An Interview with the Expert’…On Working Memory

Dr Joni Holmes is a Senior Scientist at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. Her research focuses on the causes and remediation of specific learning difficulties with a particular focus on working memory. She also runs a research clinic for children with difficulties in attention, learning and memory, which aims to illuminate the cognitive, neural and genetic underpinnings of learning difficulties.


We are delighted to say that Dr Holmes is speaking at our Research School conference in Scunthorpe on May 24th on ‘Managing working memory loads in the classroom and the importance of broader cognitive dimensions that impede school-based learning.’ You can find out more and book your place at the conference here: CONFERENCE BOOKING.

We interviewed Dr Holmes about her work and the importance of working memory:

Can you tell me a little about your professional role?

I am a scientist who carries out research to help us understand why some children struggle to learn so we can develop way to help them overcome their difficulties.

How and why do you get involved with young people and schools?

I work with children and schools because I believe in developing evidence-based interventions to support children’s learning. This involves collaborations between schools, children and scientists.

The majority of my research with young people is carried out in a research clinic that I run in Cambridge, which is how I get involved with young people and schools. The clinic is housed in the Centre for Attention Learning and Memory (see here: http://calm.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/). The families we see in the clinic are referred to us by health and education professionals, including school SENCos and specialist teachers. Working with people with their expertise is crucial for our work in the clinic because they are able to identify the children we want to work with who are struggling in the areas of attention, learning and memory. Through research carried out in the clinic we are hoping increase our understanding of the cognitive and brain processes involved in learning and develop ways of identifying and overcoming problems that might emerge during childhood.

I also conduct some of my research projects in primary schools. These are usually intervention studies where it is important for us to know whether the intervention can be used in school settings, and whether it has any benefits both for the children and the teachers.

Do you think that knowing and understanding the research that attends working memory and cognition is useful for a school teacher?

Understanding how children learn and the barriers to learning is vital for effective teaching. Our research shows that children with poor working memory find it difficult to cope in many everyday classroom situations because they often forget what they are meant to be doing. Making teachers aware of the long-term consequences of forgetting for learning and equipping them with tools to help children overcome these problems will create opportunities to improve learning outcomes.

What aspect of research around working memory and other cognitive learning difficulties proves most powerful for teachers and practitioners working with children?

In my experience helping teachers to understand why some children are struggling and providing practical ways for them to help children overcome or cope with their cognitive problems is most useful for teachers. We have developed a number of freely available resources for teachers – see here: http://calm.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/useful-resources/.

The role of memory in learning recognised as integral, but perhaps misunderstood or caraicatured as rote memorisation. How would you characterise the role of memory in the learning process in schools?

There are many different memory systems that we use for different tasks and activities. My expertise is in working memory – the system we use to hold information in our minds while completing mentally demanding activities. Working memory is important for many stages of the learning process. These include remembering the teacher’s instructions as well as using your mental workspace for processing information and problem-solving. Children with poor working memory typically forget what they should be doing or they forget information vital to individual learning activities in the classroom, meaning they often fail to complete them. This results in missed learning opportunities and failure to accumulate knowledge across individual learning episodes. Over time, this can lead to educational underachievement.

What would be the best advice for a teacher struggling with an student who is struggling with their working memory and how would they know this was the likely issue?

The defining characteristics of a child with working memory problems are poor academic progress, difficulties following multi-step instructions, problems paying attention and finding particular activities difficult that require them to remember large amounts of information. The best support that a teacher can provide is to think carefully about how to reduce the working memory demands of classroom learning activities. This can be achieved by breaking complex tasks into smaller steps, reducing the amount of information that has to be held in mind (e.g. using memory aids), being prepared to re-present information, and encouraging the child to use memory strategies. More information about this approach can be found in our classroom guide for teachers, which is available here: http://calm.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/useful-resources/.

Remember, you can hear from Dr Joni Holmes at our Research School Regional Conference – find out more about the conference HERE.

Take a look at ‘Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom GuideHERE.