10% Students may have working memory problems: Why does it matter?

Work­ing mem­o­ry is our abil­i­ty to store and manip­u­late infor­ma­tion for a brief time. It is typ­i­cal­ly mea­sured by dual-tasks, where the indi­vid­ual has to remem­ber an item while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pro­cess­ing a some­times unre­lat­ed piece of infor­ma­tion. A wide­ly used work­ing mem­o­ry task is the read­ing span task where the indi­vid­ual reads a sen­tence, ver­i­fies it, and then recalls the final word. Indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in work­ing mem­o­ry per­for­mance are close­ly relat­ed to a range of aca­d­e­m­ic skills such as read­ing, spelling, com­pre­hen­sion, and math­e­mat­ics. Cru­cial­ly, there is emerg­ing research that work­ing mem­o­ry pre­dicts learn­ing out­comes inde­pen­dent­ly of IQ. One expla­na­tion for the impor­tance of work­ing mem­o­ry in aca­d­e­m­ic attain­ment is that because it appears to be rel­a­tive­ly unaf­fect­ed by envi­ron­men­tal influ­ences, such as parental edu­ca­tion­al lev­el and finan­cial back­ground, it mea­sures a student’s capac­i­ty to acquire knowl­edge rather than what they have already learned.

How­ev­er lit­tle is known about the con­se­quences of low work­ing mem­o­ry capac­i­ty per se, inde­pen­dent of oth­er asso­ci­at­ed learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. In par­tic­u­lar, it is not known either what pro­por­tion of stu­dents with low work­ing mem­o­ry capac­i­ties has sig­nif­i­cant learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties or what their behav­ioral char­ac­ter­is­tics are. The aim of a recent study pub­lished in Child Devel­op­ment (ref­er­ence below) was to pro­vide the first sys­tem­at­ic large-scale exam­i­na­tion of the cog­ni­tive and behav­ioral char­ac­ter­is­tics of school-aged stu­dents who have been iden­ti­fied sole­ly on the basis of very low work­ing mem­o­ry scores.

In screen­ing of over 3000 school-aged stu­dents in main­stream schools, 1 in 10 was iden­ti­fied as hav­ing work­ing mem­o­ry dif­fi­cul­ties. There were sev­er­al key find­ings regard­ing their cog­ni­tive skills. The first is that the major­i­ty of them per­formed below age-expect­ed lev­els in read­ing and math­e­mat­ics. This sug­gests that low work­ing mem­o­ry skills con­sti­tute a high risk fac­tor for edu­ca­tion­al under­achieve­ment for stu­dents. This cor­re­sponds with evi­dence that work­ing mem­o­ry impacts all areas of learn­ing from kinder­garten to col­lege. It is a basic cog­ni­tive skill that we need to per­form a vari­ety of activ­i­ties, and we use it in core sub­jects like read­ing and maths, as well as gen­er­al top­ics like Art and Music. Cru­cial­ly, this pat­tern of poor per­for­mance in learn­ing out­comes remains even when stu­dents’ IQ is sta­tis­ti­cal­ly accounted.

This fits well with evi­dence sug­gest­ing that work­ing mem­o­ry is even more impor­tant to learn­ing than oth­er cog­ni­tive skills such as IQ. For exam­ple, in typ­i­cal­ly devel­op­ing stu­dents, I found that their work­ing mem­o­ry skills, rather than IQ, at 5 years old were the best pre­dic­tor of pre­dic­tor of read­ing, spelling, and math out­comes six years later.

The next major find­ing from the stud­ies of stu­dents with work­ing mem­o­ry dif­fi­cul­ties is that teach­ers typ­i­cal­ly judged the stu­dents to be high­ly inat­ten­tive, and have short poor atten­tion spans and high lev­els of dis­tractibil­i­ty. They were also com­mon­ly described as for­get­ting what they are cur­rent­ly doing and things they have learned, fail­ing to remem­ber instruc­tions, and fail­ing to com­plete tasks. In every­day class­room activ­i­ties, they often made care­less mis­takes, par­tic­u­lar­ly in writ­ing, and had dif­fi­cul­ty in solv­ing prob­lems. In con­trast, rel­a­tive­ly few of the stu­dents were judged to exhib­it the high lev­els of hyper­ac­tive and impul­sive behaviors.

The final key find­ing is that stu­dents with work­ing mem­o­ry dif­fi­cul­ties take a much longer time to process infor­ma­tion. They are unable to cope with timed activ­i­ties and fast pre­sen­ta­tion of infor­ma­tion. As a result, they often end up aban­don­ing the activ­i­ties all togeth­er out of frus­tra­tion. One way to over­come this dif­fi­cul­ty is to pro­vide them with a short­er activ­i­ty and to allow for more time dur­ing tests.

Stud­ies such as these demon­strate that stu­dents with work­ing mem­o­ry dif­fi­cul­ties have an extreme­ly high risk of mak­ing poor aca­d­e­m­ic progress and are rel­a­tive­ly com­mon in the class­room — they rep­re­sent approx­i­mate­ly 10% of their age group in main­stream school­ing. With­out ear­ly inter­ven­tion, work­ing mem­o­ry deficits can­not be made up over time and will con­tin­ue to com­pro­mise a child’s like­li­hood of aca­d­e­m­ic success.

How can we sup­port stu­dents’ learn­ing? The first cru­cial step in sup­port­ing stu­dents with work­ing mem­o­ry impair­ments is prop­er diag­no­sis, which can be con­duct­ed by a school psy­chol­o­gist. How­ev­er, at present work­ing mem­o­ry prob­lems often go unde­tect­ed in stu­dents or are mis­di­ag­nosed as atten­tion­al prob­lems. There are sev­er­al test bat­ter­ies that can be used to assess work­ing mem­o­ry, includ­ing the Work­ing Mem­o­ry Index in the WISC. How­ev­er, most assess­ment instru­ments that are cur­rent­ly avail­able require con­sid­er­able expe­ri­ence in the admin­is­tra­tion, scor­ing and inter­pre­ta­tion of cog­ni­tive tests. One use­ful tool to iden­ti­fy and sup­port stu­dents with work­ing mem­o­ry impair­ments is the Auto­mat­ed Work­ing Mem­o­ry Assess­ment (AWMA; Alloway, 2007 pub­lished by Pear­son). The ben­e­fit of the AWMA is that it is designed to pro­vide a prac­ti­cal and con­ve­nient way for non-expert asses­sors such as teach­ers to screen their pupils for sig­nif­i­cant work­ing mem­o­ry prob­lems, with a user-friend­ly inter­face. The auto­mat­ed pre­sen­ta­tion and scor­ing of tasks pro­vide con­sis­ten­cy in pre­sen­ta­tion of stim­uli across par­tic­i­pants, thus reduc­ing exper­i­menter error. The AWMA was used in the study described here, as well as in numer­ous peer-reviewed jour­nal arti­cles on the role of work­ing mem­o­ry in learn­ing, anx­i­ety, and devel­op­ment in typ­i­cal and clin­i­cal populations.

The main goal of this arti­cle was to explore the link between work­ing mem­o­ry and aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance. On the basis of a large-scale screen­ing study of over 3000 stu­dent, 10% were found to have work­ing mem­o­ry impair­ments that jeop­ar­dize their chance of aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess. The major­i­ty per­form below age-expect­ed lev­els in all areas of learn­ing and strug­gle to fol­low sim­ple instruc­tions in the class­room. These dif­fi­cul­ties high­light the need for ear­ly assess­ment to iden­ti­fy those at risk. In a future arti­cle, I will dis­cuss ways to help stu­dents with work­ing mem­o­ry prob­lems, includ­ing clin­i­cal tri­als demon­strat­ing suc­cess­ful trans­fer of cog­ni­tive train­ing to aca­d­e­m­ic attainments.

Ref­er­ence: Alloway et al. (2009). The cog­ni­tive and behav­iour­al char­ac­ter­is­tics of chil­dren with low work­ing mem­o­ry. Child Devel­op­ment, 80, 606–621.

Tracy Alloway working memory learningTra­cy 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 and has devel­oped the world’s first stan­dard­ized work­ing-mem­o­ry tests for edu­ca­tors pub­lished by Pear­son. To date, it 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, and Reuters.


  1. victoria on May 11, 2009 at 6:32

    My daugh­ter has prob­lems with work­ing mem­o­ry. The school psy­chol­o­gist reviewed her test results today with me and this is one of her main prob­lems. What soft­ware pro­grams are best to help her and where can I pur­chase them? She is 16 and we can’t lose any­more time!

  2. Anonymous on May 18, 2009 at 9:00


    The best way to improve work­ing mem­o­ry is to train it. And you are in luck. There are a few pro­grams avail­able through the web that train WM. brainworkshop.sourcefourge.net


    These two pro­vide vari­a­tions of the J‑B dual n‑back tasks that was instru­men­tal in show­ing WM can be improved along with flu­id intelligence.

    I hope you see this.

  3. Moebius on May 18, 2009 at 11:30

    This post has been select­ed for Sci­en­tia Pro Pub­li­ca. Please adver­tise the car­ni­val on your blog and we hope to see your posts includ­ed in the future. Congratulations!


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