Working memory training in school

Are there benefits for learning?
an_photos, pixabay.com, CC0
an_photos, pixabay.com, CC0

Working memory is a key cognitive skill that contributes to learning in the classroom. Despite efforts to improve working memory through computerised training, there is little evidence of a knock-on effect on learning. A new training study suggests that positive effects on learning may take time to emerge. Further research will hopefully uncover feasible and desirable methods of improving working memory in the classroom.

When you hold information in mind and manipulate it, for example during mental maths, you are using your working memory. Considered a ‘mental workspace’ or ‘mental jotting pad’, working memory enables learners to keep information in mind while engaging in a different but relevant activity. Given its importance for learning, there has been great interest in training working memory in recent years, in the hope that it will lead to improved learning outcomes across a range of subjects.

Working memory training is typically in the form of a computerised game, where the learner engages in ‘span tasks’ that aim to increase the number of items that can be held in working memory. After a number of training sessions, the key is to establish whether or not the training has led to improvement in similar tasks (near-transfer) and in different tasks that are thought to rely on working memory (far-transfer). We also want to know whether any improvements are immediate only, or if they are maintained after weeks, months, or even years have passed.

While this approach initially showed promise, a meta-analysis of 87 publications concluded that working memory training only shows short-term, near-transfer effects – and other meta-analyses have reached similar conclusions. However, a new study of working memory from Eva M. Berger and colleagues argues that there is reason to hold hope that this computerised training can improve learning outcomes with time.

The key argument is that far-transfer effects – those that we are most interested in – need time to fully emerge. According to this theory, although the working memory skills developed during training are not immediately evident in other tasks, they will eventually have a knock-on effect.

In the new study from Berger and colleagues, six- and seven-year-old students at a school in Mainz, Germany, took part in working memory training for an hour every school day for five weeks. The training took the place of one lesson each morning, when students would normally be doing maths or German, while those in the ‘natural’ control group continued their usual lessons. There was improvement in two out of three working memory tasks following training.

There was also evidence of far-transfer over time, with geometry improving after six months and further improving after a year, and reading improving after a year, but crucially not before. On a different maths measure, arithmetic, there was no impact of working memory training. Finally, three to four years later, those who took part in the training were more likely to enter the ‘academic track’ in secondary school.

“The key argument is that far-transfer effects – those that we are most interested in – need time to fully emerge.”

The study therefore found some evidence for the theory that far-transfer effects may take time to emerge, albeit in contrast to the meta-analyses showing no long-term effects (five months later on average). This new paper is just one more piece of the puzzle, and many questions remain about the mechanisms of the training and differences in outcomes based on individual working memory capacity. A computerised intervention targeting working memory could be especially welcome for those with working memory capacity below the typical range.

There may be other ways to enhance working memory in the classroom, through training it within the context it is needed – for example, teaching strategies for holding and manipulating information in mind during mental maths. This would be similar to the approach trialled for enhancing inhibitory control, another cognitive skill thought to be important for learning, within the context of the subject being learnt.

“Many questions remain about the mechanisms of the training and differences in outcomes based on individual working memory capacity.”

At the moment we don’t have the evidence to say that computerised working memory training is effective in leading to better learning outcomes. It is possible that a focus on longer-term outcomes may show some positive effects, but studies will need to investigate this further. In the meantime, an appreciation of the importance of working memory for learning may be a good starting point.

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