Working memory (sometimes referred to as “short-term memory”) helps math students as they hold information temporarily in their mind. It’s essential for mental math. With limited working memory, students may need tools or supports to successfully perform calculations or make sense of a mathematical task.

When it comes to math text passages, teachers can adjust the passage to help students address the same mathematical skills but removing the obstacle of working memory.

Let’s consider this example problem:

Dylan and Hunter bought breakfast at a shop that sells juice, doughnuts, and muffins. Dylan bought juice and 4 doughnuts for $8.00. Hunter bought juice and 6 doughnuts for $11.00. What is the cost for each doughnut?

**Organize information**

In most content areas, we expect writing to be clearly organized, helping the reader identify the main idea and any important supporting information. Math text, however, often hides the main idea (the goal of the problem, or the question) and may include information with the sole purpose of distraction. As students read the example problem, they have to treat everything as important until they know what they are being asked. Are we finding the difference between each shopper’s expenditure? Are we calculating the amount of change they will receive? No – we discover at the very end that we are calculating a unit rate. If we had known that at the beginning, we would have read the problem with a different approach. We can help students with limited working memory by clearly identifying the main idea. This provides structure for students as they read the problem, helping them determine what information is important and what they can discard. Notice how the problem looks different with the question at the beginning:

Determine the cost for each doughnut: Dylan and Hunter bought breakfast at a shop that sells juice, doughnuts, and muffins. Dylan bought juice and 4 doughnuts for $8.00. Hunter bought juice and 6 doughnuts for $11.00. What is the cost for each doughnut?

We can also support students by *chunking* information into small, digestible pieces. Breaking up large blocks of text makes it easier to read, and can aid retention of information. Notice this change:

Determine the cost for each doughnut: Dylan and Hunter bought breakfast at a shop that sells juice, doughnuts, and muffins.Dylan bought juice and 4 doughnuts for $8.00. Hunter bought juice and 6 doughnuts for $11.00.

What is the cost for each doughnut?

Students are still working on the same learning target, but we have a clearer picture of students’ ability when working memory issues are not clouding their work.

My forthcoming book, *Activating the Untapped Potential of Neurodiverse Learners in the Math Classroom: Tools and Strategies to Make Math Accessible for All Students,* explores different areas of cognitive ability (such as *working memory* or *fluid reasoning*) and how they impact students in the math classroom. I also describe strategies for supporting neurodiverse students so they can access rich, meaningful math work.

*Image resources from flaticon.com*