Featured Resource | Working Memory Strengthening Exercise

An Exercise for Strengthening Working Memory
from Dr. Milton J. Dehn
Schoolhouse Educational Services, LLC

A research-supported working memory exercise known as N-Back requires only a deck of playing cards and 15 minutes a day. “N-Back” refers to remembering an item that you saw, in this case a playing card, a certain number (N) of cards before. For example, if you are doing the exercise at the 2-back level and the series of cards is 6 – 3 – 4 – 7 – 5, you would say “six” when the 4 is shown, “three” when the 7 is shown, and “four” when the 5 is shown.

The first time you do the exercise begin by trying to remember the card you saw just before the current card. You should look at each card for about two seconds. Say the name of the card you are supposed to remember as soon as the next card is flipped over. When you make your first mistake, you must start over with a new set of cards. When you can correctly recall 10 cards in a row, you can go to the next level where you will need to remember what you saw two cards before. Keep increasing your level until you are no longer able to correctly recall 10 cards in a row. (Detailed directions are below.)

A Strategy for the Exercise

As you try to remember cards farther and farther back in the sequence, the exercise will become more difficult. To succeed, you must develop a strategy. Simply looking at the cards and automatically remembering them will no longer work. A helpful strategy is to keep repeating (silently in your head) the cards you need to remember at that moment. For example, if you are at the 3-back level and the card sequence is 5, 3, Jack, 3, 9, and 7, when you see the 5, keep quietly saying to yourself “five, five, five” until the 3 is flipped up; then say “five, three” as many times as you can until the Jack is flipped up; and then “five, three, Jack” until the 3 is flipped up. Then, after you say “five” aloud, quickly say to yourself “three, Jack, three” until the 9 is flipped up, and so on. This makes the cards easier to remember because you are verbalizing what you see and because you are using repetition.

Practice and Keep It Challenging

Making your working memory stronger is similar to making your muscles stronger. To improve, you must exercise almost every day and push the limits of what you are capable of doing. Whenever you master one level, move up to the next level in order to keep it challenging. Each day when you begin the exercise, continue at the same level where you were at the previous day


  1. The exercise can be done alone or with a partner. If you have a partner, that person will show you the cards one-at-a-time, hide each card after you have seen it, and let you know when you make your first mistake.
  2. If you are doing the exercise alone, just turn each card over after you have seen it. Write your responses on a sheet of paper and then check for accuracy after you have responded 10 times. Start over whenever you can’t remember the next response.
  3. Begin by shuffling a regular deck of playing cards.
  4. Look at the first card for two seconds. Then turn it over. Then do the same for each card.
  5. Once you reach the level where you must begin responding either tell your partner the response or write your response down. You should not give your response until the next card has been turned over for viewing. After you give your response you have two seconds to look at the newest card before it is turned over.
  6. Continue until your partner tells you that you made a mistake, you can’t remember, or you have written down 10 responses.
  7. After each mistake start the process over again. (When working alone complete 10 written responses before checking the answers, but do start over when you can’t remember the response.)
  8. The goal is to remember a sequence of 10 correct responses. When this is accomplished, start over with a new sequence. When you have successfully completed 10 in a row at least three different times, you can try the next level. For example, when you can remember a 10-card sequence at 2 cards back, you can try 3 cards back.
  9. Practice this for at least 15 minutes per day, at least five days per week.
  10. For adults and children with normal working memory ability, both the name or number of the card and the suit of the card (a club, diamond, heart, or spade) should be recalled. For individuals with working memory deficits, this may be too difficult. These individuals need only recall the name or number of the card, not the suit.