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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 Read the rest of this entry »

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