Working memory is the ability to hold information in your head and
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.
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
Tracy 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.
Previous related articles:
- 10% Students may have working memory problems: Why does it matter, by Tracy Alloway
- Try Thinking and Learning without working memory, by Bill Klemm