Thursday, December 23, 2010

Working memory is a better predictor of academic success than IQ

Published on December 21, 2010
by Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD

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 this article 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.

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 fulfil 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.

ReferenceAlloway, T.P. & Alloway, R. G. (2010). Investigating the predictive roles of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 106, 20-29.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Accents in wombs"

BBC News ran a story yesterday on babies' ability to pick up certain aspects of their parents' accents in the womb. Before we get carried away by the image of neonates springing out into the world speaking broad Geordie or Brummie, we should look at the study (in press in the journal Current Biology) in a little more detail. The German researchers recorded and analysed the cries of some very young babies—between 2 and 5 days old—born into two language groups, French and German. There were 30 babies in each group. The analysis of the recordings involved examination of the cries' 'melody contours', which makes use of the fact that the cry of a baby follows a distinctive pattern: first rising in pitch, and then falling, in a single arc.

The results of the analyses showed clear differences between the language groups. The French babies' cries spent longer on the rising part of the arc, and the German cries were skewed towards the falling part. These patterns match up to the particular prosodic patterns of the French and German languages, as demonstrated in other studies (and fully evident to listeners to those spoken languages).

There's nothing particularly new about a finding that foetuses can pick up and learn about auditory information in the womb. In my book, I describe an experiment conducted by Peter Hepper two decades ago, in which babies who had been exposed to the theme tune of the soap Neighbours showed a preference for that tune after they had been born. Plenty of other convincing evidence for foetal learning has been published since the time of Hepper's study. What is striking about this new study is that babies aren't just learning patterns in the womb, but they are also showing an ability to mimic them—which must call for some very sophisticated control over the articulatory system (the system of muscles that allows us to produce speech). Previous findings had shown vocal imitation at 12 weeks, but no earlier. Rather than just making a noise that is constrained by the respiratory (breathing) cycle, newborn babies are actually shaping the sound they make, and doing it in response to sounds they have already heard in the womb. This is particularly true of the French babies, with their 'rising' intonation—not the sort of cry you would hear if babies were simply vocalising their breaths.

In her comments to BBC News, study author Kathleen Wermke speculates that 'crying with an accent' may play a part in attracting the mother's attention and thus forging a bond with her. I was also interested in the comment by Debbie Mills of Bangor University, who questions whether this neonatal capacity for imitation might fall away shortly after birth only to return later in a different form. This 'inverse-U' trajectory of development is commonly observed in the first few months of life, with newborns showing capacities that they then lose, only to recover them again a few months later as different neural systems take responsibility for them.

(Mampe et al., Newborns’ Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language, Current Biology (2009),

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