Understanding how working memory problems impair classroom learning
CBSU Director Sue Gathercole has for many years been interested in discovering why the best single predictor of a child’s current and future academic achievements is his or her working memory ability. This is easily measured by activities that require an individual to remember a sequence of information as well as engaging in some effortful mental activity. A good example of such an activity is backward digit span: it is relatively easy to remember and reverse the spoken sequence 5,8 (correct answer 8, 5), but much trickier to do the same for a longer sequence such as 2,9,8,6,2,7.
So, why do children with relatively poor working memories struggle in almost all areas of classroom learning, including reading and maths? To even start answering this important question, it is necessary to discover how such children behave in school. Work from Sue’s group has shown that children with poor working memory were frequently inattentive, failing to follow instructions and complete classroom activities because they forgot critical information.
Practical benefits of this research
- By combining expertise and rigour in assessing memory and other cognitive skills with a focus on learning, it has been possible to develop standardised tests of working memory that are suitable for children. These are now widely used by many professional groups ranging from special needs teachers to paediatricians to diagnose and understand the nature of the children’s working memory problems.
- Applying the principles of cognitive psychology to the classroom, this team has generated guidance on how to reduce the problems on working memory overload. These principles have been widely adopted by educational professionals to improve learning and classroom behaviour.
Gathercole SE & Alloway TP (2008). Working memory and learning: A guide for teachers. Sage.
- Sue’s group have conducted rigorous trials on the impact of working memory training programmes on children with working memory problems. Their recent randomised controlled trial headed by Darren Dunning and funded by the Leverhulme Trust has established that cognitive training can indeed lead to sustained boosts in performance on working memory tasks. However, the gains as yet have not been found to extend to other cognitive activities and learning tasks that would be expected to benefit from working memory enhancement.