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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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2 Responses

  1. Excel­lent arti­cle! I bet through atten­tion-build­ing tech­niques like med­i­ta­tion and hyp­no­sis we can build up stu­den­t’s work­ing mem­o­ry and thus cre­ate a gen­er­a­tion of bet­ter learn­ers. 🙂

  2. Great post. Very inter­est­ing per­spec­tive and I’m always eager to find new ways to keep us mov­ing for­ward…

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