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Working memory: a better predictor of academic success than IQ?

Work­ing mem­ory is the abil­ity to hold infor­ma­tion in your head and

via Flickr (Plasticinaa)

Pic: Flickr (Plasticinaa)

manip­u­late it men­tally. You use this men­tal work­space when adding up two num­bers spo­ken to you by some­one else with­out being able to use pen and paper or a cal­cu­la­tor. Chil­dren at school need this mem­ory on a daily basis for a vari­ety of tasks such as fol­low­ing teach­ers’ instruc­tions or remem­ber­ing sen­tences they have been asked to write down.

The main goal of our recent paper pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Child Psy­chol­ogy was to inves­ti­gate the pre­dic­tive power of work­ing mem­ory and IQ in learn­ing in typ­i­cally devel­op­ing chil­dren over a six-year period. This issue is impor­tant because dis­tin­guish­ing between the cog­ni­tive skills under­pin­ning suc­cess in learn­ing is cru­cial for early screen­ing and intervention.

In this study, typ­i­cally devel­op­ing stu­dents were tested for their IQ and work­ing mem­ory at 5 years old and again when they were 11 years old. They were also tested on their aca­d­e­mic attain­ments in read­ing, spelling and maths.

Find­ings and Edu­ca­tional Implications

The find­ings revealed that a child’s suc­cess in all aspects of learn­ing is down to how good their work­ing mem­ory is regard­less of IQ score. Crit­i­cally, work­ing mem­ory at the start of for­mal edu­ca­tion is a more pow­er­ful pre­dic­tor of sub­se­quent aca­d­e­mic suc­cess than IQ in the early years.

This unique find­ing is impor­tant as it addresses con­cerns that gen­eral intel­li­gence, still viewed as a key pre­dic­tor of aca­d­e­mic suc­cess, is unre­li­able. An indi­vid­ual can have an aver­age IQ score but per­form poorly in learning.

Some psy­chol­o­gists sug­gest that the link between IQ and learn­ing is great­est when the indi­vid­ual is learn­ing new infor­ma­tion, rather than at later stages when it is sug­gested that gains made are the result of practice.

Yet the find­ings from this research that work­ing mem­ory capac­ity pre­dicted sub­se­quent skills in read­ing, spelling, and math sug­gests that some cog­ni­tive skills con­tribute to learn­ing beyond prac­tice effects.

The study also found that, as opposed to IQ, work­ing mem­ory is not linked to the par­ents level of edu­ca­tion or socio-economic back­ground. This means all chil­dren regard­less of back­ground or envi­ron­men­tal influ­ence can have the same oppor­tu­ni­ties to ful­fill poten­tial if work­ing mem­ory is assessed and prob­lems addressed where necessary.

Work­ing mem­ory is a rel­a­tively sta­ble con­struct that has pow­er­ful impli­ca­tions for aca­d­e­mic suc­cess. While work­ing mem­ory does increase with age, its rel­a­tive capac­ity remains con­stant. This means that a child at the bot­tom 10 per­centile com­pared to their same-aged peers is likely to remain at this level through­out their aca­d­e­mic career.

What’s Next

In sum­mary, the present arti­cle sug­gests that the tra­di­tional reliance on IQ as a bench­mark for aca­d­e­mic suc­cess may be mis­guided. Instead, schools should focus on assess­ing work­ing mem­ory as it is the best pre­dic­tor of read­ing, spelling and math skills six years later. At present, poor work­ing mem­ory is rarely iden­ti­fied by teach­ers, who often describe chil­dren with this prob­lem as inat­ten­tive or as hav­ing lower lev­els of intel­li­gence. How­ever, there are stan­dard­ized assess­ments that are suit­able for edu­ca­tors to use to screen their stu­dents for work­ing mem­ory prob­lems. For exam­ple, the Auto­mated Work­ing Mem­ory Assess­ment (pub­lished by the Psy­cho­log­i­cal Cor­po­ra­tion) allows non-specialist asses­sors such as class­room teach­ers to screen their stu­dents for sig­nif­i­cant work­ing mem­ory prob­lems quickly and effectively.

Prob­lems with work­ing mem­ory can be eas­ily addressed in schools—an advan­tage over IQ which is more dif­fi­cult to influ­ence by teach­ers. Early inter­ven­tion in work­ing mem­ory could lead to a reduc­tion in the num­ber of those fail­ing schools and help address the prob­lem of under-achievement in schools.

Ref­er­ence: Alloway, T.P. & Alloway, R. G. (2010). Inves­ti­gat­ing the pre­dic­tive roles of work­ing mem­ory and IQ in aca­d­e­mic attain­ment. Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Child Psy­chol­ogy
DOI: http://10.1016/j.jecp.2009.11.003

tracy_picTracy Pack­iam Alloway, PhD, is the Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Mem­ory and Learn­ing in the Lifes­pan at the Uni­ver­sity of Stir­ling, UK. She was recently awarded the pres­ti­gious Joseph Lis­ter Award by the British Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion for her con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence. Tracy has devel­oped the only stan­dard­ized working-memory tests for edu­ca­tors pub­lished by Psy­cho­log­i­cal Cor­po­ra­tion, which to date has been trans­lated into 15 lan­guages and used to screen for work­ing mem­ory prob­lems in stu­dents with dyslexia, motor dys­praxia (Devel­op­men­tal Coor­di­na­tion Dis­or­der), ADHD and Autis­tic Spec­trum Dis­or­der. She pro­vides con­sul­tancy to the World Bank and her research has received wide­spread inter­na­tional cov­er­age in hun­dreds of media out­lets, includ­ing Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, the BBC, Reuters, ABC News, and NBC.

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