Monday, 27 April 2015

Working memory in the classroom

Working memory is the memory system we use during everyday activities. Imagine, for example, attempting to multiply two numbers without writing them down. You would need to hold the numbers in working memory whilst calculating the answer. Similarly, imagine hearing a list of instructions for a learning task. You would need to hold the instructions in working memory whilst carrying out each activity. It is well established that working memory plays an important role in children’s learning and attainment.

A number of assessments are available for children’s working memory. Although some of these are expensive and lengthy to administer, in a recent project I helped with the design and standardisation of a new simple assessment, called Lucid Recall. This is a brief computerized assessment, which can be used in group settings. Children complete three tasks, without needing any input from a teacher, and a report detailing their performance and any potential areas for improvement is then generated. The assessment is standardised for children aged 7 to 16 years, and has good reliability and validity (St Clair-Thompson, 2014).

Lucid Recall

Working memory is closely related to learning and attainment across a range of curricular domains. For example, in the testing of Lucid Recall national curriculum levels for reading, writing, and mathematics were collected for over 300 children who completed the memory assessment. Children were aged 7 to 11 years. The correlations between working memory and national curriculum levels ranged from .31 to .60, suggesting that working memory can explain up to 36% of the variance in national curriculum levels. Scores on the memory assessment also successfully identified children with special educational needs.

These findings were not new, and added to a vast and growing literature on the role of working memory in learning and attainment (e.g. see Alloway & Gathercole, 2006; Cowan, 2014). This literature is concerned with many theoretical and practical issues. However, having established a relationship between working memory and learning the question which is probably of most interest to teachers is “What can we do about it?” One approach, which has recently received much attention, is that of working memory training. Similar to more generic “brain training”, this involves repeated practice on tasks requiring storage and manipulation of verbal and visuo-spatial information. It is not surprising that training on such working memory tasks improves participant’s performance on those trained tasks. However, what we are most interested in is improvements on other measures such as tasks assessing reading, maths, or even intelligence. The likelihood of such improvements has been an issue of much debate.

In some of my own work I have explored the effects of Memory Booster, a training programme that allows practice on working memory tasks, and also provides instructions on how to use memory strategies such as rehearsal and visualisation. Evidence suggests that it leads to improvements on measures of working memory, but not to improvements on standardised measures of reading, comprehension or mathematics (St Clair-Thompson, Stevens, Hunt & Bolder, 2010).

Memory Booster

Many studies exploring working memory training, however, use a programme called CogMed ( Some studies have suggested promising effects of the CogMed programme. However, many studies have revealed a pattern of findings very similar to my own work with Memory Booster, of improvements in working memory but no other cognitive tasks. Several recent reviews have therefore concluded that there is limited evidence for the benefits of working memory training (e.g. Melby-Lervag & Hulme, 2013; Shipstead, Redick, & Engle, 2012).

A second approach to addressing the role of working memory in the classroom has therefore been to consider reducing the working memory demands of classroom activities. Being aware of the role of working memory in children’s learning should allow teachers to consider working memory demands and make sure that they don’t overload a child’s working memory. For example, using visual aids, breaking down complex tasks into separate independent steps, and repeating important information should reduce the chance of children failing on learning activities as a result of a poor working memory. Although currently we are lacking well-designed studies examining such approaches, there certainly can’t be any harm in implementing these strategies within the school classroom. More generally, the more teachers become aware of working memory and its importance within the classroom, the fewer children that will be disadvantaged in school as a result of a poor working memory.

Alloway, T.P. & Gathercole, S.E. (2006). How does working memory work in the classroom? Educational Research and Reviews, 1, 134-139.
Cowan, N. (2014). Working memory underpins cognitive development, learning and education. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 197-223.
Melby-Lervag, M., & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49, 270- 291.
Shipstead, Z., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2012). Is working memory training effective? Psychological Bulletin, 138, 628- 654.
St Clair-Thompson, H.L. (2014). Establishing the Reliability and Validity of a Computerized Assessment of Children’s Working Memory for Use in Group Settings. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 32, 15-26.
St ClairThompson, H., Stevens, R., Hunt, A., & Bolder, E. (2010). Improving children's working memory and classroom performance. Educational Psychology, 30, 203-219.

Brief academic bio
Dr Helen St Clair-Thompson is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, Newcastle University. She is interested in psychological constructs that are important in educational settings, and has published widely on the topic of working memory. Further details can be found at

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