Thursday, January 27, 2011

10% Students may have working memory problems: Why does it matter?

MAY 10, 2009

By: Dr. Tracy Alloway

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 low work­ing mem­ory skills con­sti­tute a high risk fac­tor for edu­ca­tional under­achieve­ment for stu­dents. This cor­re­sponds with evi­dence that work­ing mem­ory impacts all areas of learn­ing from kinder­garten to col­lege. It is a basic cog­ni­tive skill that we need to per­form a vari­ety of activ­i­ties, and we use it in core sub­jects like read­ing and maths, as well as gen­eral top­ics like Art and Music. Cru­cially, this pat­tern of poor per­for­mance in learn­ing out­comes remains even when stu­dents’ IQ is sta­tis­ti­cally accounted.
This fits well with evi­dence sug­gest­ing that work­ing mem­ory is even more impor­tant to learn­ing than other cog­ni­tive skills such as IQ. For exam­ple, in typ­i­cally devel­op­ing stu­dents, I found that their work­ing mem­ory skills, rather than IQ, at 5 years old were the best pre­dic­tor of pre­dic­tor of read­ing, spelling, and math out­comes six years later.
The next major find­ing from the stud­ies of stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory dif­fi­cul­ties is that teach­ers typ­i­cally judged the stu­dents to be highly inat­ten­tive, and have short poor atten­tion spans and high lev­els of dis­tractibil­ity. They were also com­monly described as for­get­ting what they are cur­rently doing and things they have learned, fail­ing to remem­ber instruc­tions, and fail­ing to com­plete tasks. In every­day class­room activ­i­ties, they often made care­less mis­takes, par­tic­u­larly in writ­ing, and had dif­fi­culty in solv­ing prob­lems. In con­trast, rel­a­tively few of the stu­dents were judged to exhibit the high lev­els of hyper­ac­tive and impul­sive behaviors.
The final key find­ing is that stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory dif­fi­cul­ties take a much longer time to process infor­ma­tion. They are unable to cope with timed activ­i­ties and fast pre­sen­ta­tion of infor­ma­tion. As a result, they often end up aban­don­ing the activ­i­ties all together out of frus­tra­tion. One way to over­come this dif­fi­culty is to pro­vide them with a shorter activ­ity and to allow for more time dur­ing tests.
Stud­ies such as these demon­strate that stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory dif­fi­cul­ties have an extremely high risk of mak­ing poor aca­d­e­mic progress and are rel­a­tively com­mon in the class­room — they rep­re­sent approx­i­mately 10% of their age group in main­stream school­ing. With­out early inter­ven­tion, work­ing mem­ory deficits can­not be made up over time and will con­tinue to com­pro­mise a child’s like­li­hood of aca­d­e­mic success.
How can we sup­port stu­dents’ learn­ing? The first cru­cial step in sup­port­ing stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory impair­ments is proper diag­no­sis, which can be con­ducted by a school psy­chol­o­gist. How­ever, at present work­ing mem­ory prob­lems often go unde­tected in stu­dents or are mis­di­ag­nosed as atten­tional prob­lems. There are sev­eral test bat­ter­ies that can be used to assess work­ing mem­ory, includ­ing the Work­ing Mem­ory Index in the WISC. How­ever, most assess­ment instru­ments that are cur­rently avail­able require con­sid­er­able expe­ri­ence in the admin­is­tra­tion, scor­ing and inter­pre­ta­tion of cog­ni­tive tests. One use­ful tool to iden­tify and sup­port stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory impair­ments is the Auto­mated Work­ing Mem­ory Assess­ment (AWMA; Alloway, 2007 pub­lished by Pear­son). The ben­e­fit of the AWMA is that it is designed to pro­vide a prac­ti­cal and con­ve­nient way for non-expert asses­sors such as teach­ers to screen their pupils for sig­nif­i­cant work­ing mem­ory prob­lems, with a user-friendly inter­face. The auto­mated pre­sen­ta­tion and scor­ing of tasks pro­vide con­sis­tency in pre­sen­ta­tion of stim­uli across par­tic­i­pants, thus reduc­ing exper­i­menter error. The AWMA was used in the study described here, as well as in numer­ous peer-reviewed jour­nal arti­cles on the role of work­ing mem­ory in learn­ing, anx­i­ety, and devel­op­ment in typ­i­cal and clin­i­cal populations.
The main goal of this arti­cle was to explore the link between work­ing mem­ory and aca­d­e­mic per­for­mance. On the basis of a large-scale screen­ing study of over 3000 stu­dent, 10% were found to have work­ing mem­ory impair­ments that jeop­ar­dize their chance of aca­d­e­mic suc­cess. The major­ity per­form below age-expected lev­els in all areas of learn­ing and strug­gle to fol­low sim­ple instruc­tions in the class­room. These dif­fi­cul­ties high­light the need for early assess­ment to iden­tify those at risk. In a future arti­cle, I will dis­cuss ways to help stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory prob­lems, includ­ing clin­i­cal tri­als demon­strat­ing suc­cess­ful trans­fer of cog­ni­tive train­ing to aca­d­e­mic attainments.
Ref­er­ence: Alloway et al. (2009). The cog­ni­tive and behav­ioural char­ac­ter­is­tics of chil­dren with low work­ing mem­ory. Child Devel­op­ment, 80, 606–621.
Tracy Alloway working memory learningTracy 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 and has devel­oped the world’s first stan­dard­ized working-memory tests for edu­ca­tors pub­lished by Pear­son. To date, it 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, and Reuters.


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