Working memory, our ability to hold and manipulate information in mind for brief periods of time, is associated with children’s abilities to learn in key areas of the school curriculum. Children with poor working memory skills often struggle in individual learning activities in the classroom and, over time, they begin to fall behind. Poor working memory is also associated with a wide range of developmental disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Until a few years ago, we did not think it was possible to train working memory directly. However Cogmed, a Swedish company headed by Professor Torkel Klingberg, developed a computer-based working memory training program that produced some promising results with children with ADHD who were not medicated for their symptoms and adults following a stroke.
In these projects we are evaluating the impact of the Cogmed Working Memory Training program with different populations. The key points from each of these projects are summarised below.
- The aim of this project was to evaluate the impact of two interventions, stimulant medication and a training program, on the working memory skills of children with ADHD.
- Twenty-five children aged 8 to 11 years, with a clinical diagnosis of combined-type ADHD receiving stimulant medication for their symptoms, completed working memory and IQ assessments both on and off their medication, and before and after training.
- While stimulant medication boosted only non-verbal aspects of working memory, training improved all aspects of working memory across both the verbal and non-verbal domains. These gains persisted six months after training ceased.
- There was no significant effect of training or medication on children’s IQ scores.
- These findings suggest that while medication is useful for managing the behavioural symptoms of ADHD, its impact on the working memory system that supports learning is somewhat restricted in scope. The generalised benefits of training to working memory, particularly verbal aspects of working memory, however holds the promise of enhancing learning in children with memory difficulties.
Holmes, J., Gathercole, S.E., Place, M., Dunning, D.L., Hilton, K.A., & Elliott, J.G. (in press). Working memory deficits can be overcome: Impacts of training and medication on working memory in children with ADHD, Applied Cognitive Psychology.DOI: 10.1002/acp.1589. copy.
- This project investigated whether a working memory training program could improve reading and mathematics in children with poor working memory skills for their age.
- A total of 42 children aged 8 to 11 with poor working memory (identified by poor scores on two working memory tests) were identified. They formed two groups: i) an adaptive group who completed a version of the training program in which the difficulty of the training activities was matched to the child’s ability every day ii) a non-adaptive control group, who completed the same training activities that were set at a low/easy level throughout the training period.
- All children completed assessments of working memory, IQ, single word reading and mathematical reasoning before and after training. They also completed a classroom-analogue of a working memory task, which measured their ability to follow multi-step spoken instructions.
- Adaptive training that taxed working memory to its limits boosted all aspects of working memory from the deficit to the age-appropriate range for the majority of children. These effects were sustained six months after training stopped, at which point mathematical skills had improved significantly.
- These findings suggest that working memory impairments and associated learning difficulties may be overcome through working memory training.
Holmes, J., Gathercole, S.E., & Dunning, D.L. (2009). Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children, Developmental Science, DOI 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00848. copy.
- The aim of this project is to investigate the impact of training on children’s everyday classroom functioning.
- One hundred and twenty children aged 7 to 9 years will participate in the study. Children will be randomly assigned to one of three conditions: i) adaptive ii) non-adaptive and iii)no intervention.
- Children’s performance on laboratory analogues of classroom activities that place high demands on working memory will be assessed before and after training. Their classroom behaviour as rated by teachers and their academic abilities will also be measured.
- This project is due to end 2011. Finding that training results in robust and generalised transfer to a full range of classroom activities that are constrained by working memory would be profoundly important, establishing a practical way of addressing this cognitive limitation that overcomes its substantial developmental impact.
- This project investigated the impact of memory training in a group of undergraduate students, with the aim of providing preliminary evidence of strategy development.
- Twenty undergraduate students aged 18-21 years completed memory assessments before and after a reduced training schedule of 10 days. Open-ended responses about strategy use and strategy change during training were elicited from participants at two points; following the pre-training memory assessments and after the post training memory assessments. The reported strategies were incorporated into a pilot version of the Working Memory Strategy Questionnaire (WMSQ).
- Substantial and significant gains in memory were observed following training. These were accompanied by a significant increase in the number of and a change in the type of strategies used.
- These results suggest training may promote the development of idiosyncratic strategy use and that it may be useful for individuals without disorders of memory or attention.
In a new project funded by the ESRC, to start in September 2010, we will be supporting a range of activities that increase accessibility and relevance to classroom practice of the research carried out to date. This will involve the following components.
- We will support two field trials of the classroom-based intervention and working memory training programme for children with poor working memory. These will be carried out in partnership with key staff in a middle school and a secondary technology college.
- We will host a conference and a series of seminars and workshops for specialist groups within education and health on identifying and supporting children with working memory problems.
- We will develop outreach materials that will be made available on our website that will facilitate global access to the research evidence on working memory and learning, and to the practical methods that help children overcome the learning difficulties associated with working memory problems.
- We will prepare and disseminate briefings of best practice in the effectivemanagement of working memory problems to policy-makers ingovernment and other relevant policy-making agencies.
Gathercole, S. E. & Alloway, T. P. (2008). Working memory and learning: A practical guide. Sage Press. For further information, click here.
Holmes, J., Gathercole, S.E., Place, M., Dunning, D.L., Hilton, K.A., & Elliott, J.G. (in press). Working memory deficits can be overcome: Impacts of training and medication on working memory in children with ADHD, Applied Cognitive Psychology.DOI: 10.1002/acp.1589. For a copy, click here
Holmes, J., Gathercole, S.E., & Dunning, D.L. (2009). Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children, Developmental Science, DOI 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00848 For a copy, click here
Alloway, T. P., Gathercole, S. E., Kirkwood, H., & Elliott, J. (2009). The cognitive and behavioural characteristics of children with low working memory. Child Development, 80, 606-621. For a copy, click here
Applications and future research
The results of these projects have potentially far-reaching implications for educational and clinical professionals. They show for that working memory problems, which are an important risk factor for educational under-achievement and are associated with developmental disorders, can be improved through a 6 week intensive training program.
The researchers are involved in several working memory training projects and LEA collaborations. In their future investigations, the researchers plan to extend their work to whole-class and whole-school investigations and to investigate the impact of training in other populations.
About the study
This research was carried out by Professor Susan Gathercole (University of York), Dr Joni Holmes (Northumbria University), Darren Dunning (University of York), Professor Maurice Place (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services, Hartlepool and Northumbria University), Kerry Hilton (Durham University) and Professor Julian Elliot (Durham University).