Working memory measures potential to learn, and can be crucial in supporting classroom achievement, says Tracy Packiam Alloway
Tracy Packiam Alloway researches working memory at the University of North Florida and has developed the world's first standardised working memory tests for educators. Her latest book is an edited collection, Working Memory: The Connected Intelligence, published by Psychology Press.
What is working memory?
You could think of it as the brain's conductor. So for example, when we speak, working memory would be bringing the words that we know together and connecting them into a coherent sentence. It's the conscious processing of information. We see working memory at work not just in education – researchers have looked at how working memory plays a critical role in a whole range of different daily functions.
How did you get interested in this?
It was triggered by a study where I followed a group of children from age five up until 11. I found that their working memory at five was a very powerful predictor of their overall achievement in school six years later, much more than their IQ scores. Since then. I've looked at the gamut – gifted children, kids with learning difficulties, ADHD – and the pattern is the same, that working memory is a really crucial skill to education.
How is it different from IQ?
It's so much more important than IQ. The very definition of working memory is your ability to learn, your potential; it doesn't measure what you have learned. In a typical IQ test, you might have to provide a definition of a word. One of the studies I did in the UK was with students in two schools in very different communities. In one test, they had to give me definitions of words such as "police". In one school they would say: "They wear uniforms, they keep you safe" and in the other they gave me responses such as: "I don't like police, they took my dad away." Unfortunately, the responses in the latter group didn't match the kind of textbook answers that the test was looking for in terms of knowledge or IQ. In contrast, when I looked at working memory scores, there was no difference. The crucial aspect, which is very exciting, is that working memory is not dependent on environment.
You've done work with teachers to find out how they see children with poor working memory.
A lot of times, they describe these children as daydreamers, or maybe just not trying hard enough, or unmotivated. As they get older, they begin to disengage with education, they begin to feel "I can't do it, I'm going to fail, so why should I try?" The gap between them and their peers begins to widen, because they feel more and more frustrated. These are common features of students with poor working memory.
What it is about working memory that makes the students feel that way?
In some cases, if the working memory is right at the borderline, they may find coping strategies to compensate until the learning is too difficult and then it overwhelms them. When I talk to educators, I often refer to working memory like a Post-it note. If they have a small note, they may do fine on some talks but the minute those tasks overload the Post-it they start struggling.
You see this especially when kids go to secondary school or college where they are supposed to be more independent with learning and they simply don't have working memory skills to process all the incoming information.
Should we replace IQ tests with working memory tests?
Absolutely, yes. I just got asked to work with a child who was in the 98th percentile for verbal and non-verbal IQ scores but when it came to working memory he was average. He is in a very academically challenging school and his IQ is well above average, but he is really struggling because compared with his peers, he's not able to integrate all this information. Even someone who's classified as gifted will struggle.
Also, using IQ can really damage students because it privileges people from a particular socioeconomic background. Again, we see that working memory doesn't do that; it is much less influenced by your parents' education level, your postcode, the area where you grew up, and it really looks at what kind of space you have to work with knowledge.
How might teachers help?
A good example is students with dyslexia. They tend to do much worse in verbal working memory compared with visual working memory. Often, the teacher might say: "Just repeat it over and over again to yourself to remember it." But if a student has a poor verbal working memory, that's their area of weakness and they could have a really difficult time using that as a strategy. It's like asking a student to push through and run on a broken ankle when they need a bit of support. We need to take more steps to ask what do these kids look like in class and how do we support their learning?
Is there an easy way to test working memory?
You can ask someone to read out a random string of numbers, a number a second, and recite them in backwards order. Keep adding a number until they can't recite them backwards. An average 30-year-old should be able to remember five or six numbers; an average 40-year-old about five; a 50-year-old around four.
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