Working memory - could it be more important than IQ?
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Working memory - could it be more important than IQ?

IQ, typically verbal IQ, has for a long time been used as an indicator of academic potential. However, more recent research has indicated that working memory could be a more powerful predictor of future performance.

What is working memory?

Working memory is a type of short-term memory – a temporary storage which holds a small amount of information whilst we process it. You could think of it as a kind of post-it note for the brain. For example, we might use it to store numbers whilst carrying out mental maths, or to follow directions which we have been given orally, or when we have looked at a map which we no longer have in front of us.

Are there limits in working memory capacity?

We all have experiences of when we are trying to hold some information in our mind, and we are interrupted, or given something else to remember, and it is lost. Adults are generally able to hold around 6-7 units of information in their working memory, less if the information is random and meaningless. Children have less capacity, which increases steadily up to the age of 14-15. But there are huge variations amongst children so that, for example in a class of 7 year olds, 10% will have the working memory capacity of an average 4 year old, whereas 10 % will have the same capacity as an average 10 year old.

Why is working memory so important for academic success?

Think about a typical classroom environment. 30+ children often given generalised instructions, some of the children will have reached working memory capacity on some tasks, just in recalling the 2-3 items they need to get started.  Without further prompts the information needed to guide the ongoing activity is lost.

Think also about technology and how we use it today. We have a world full of facts at our fingertips. The knowledge we have stored in our heads is perhaps now less important than our ability to access and process new information.

How would I know if my child had working memory difficulties?

Children with working memory difficulties are not always easy to spot. Some can become very adept at finding strategies to support themselves, or their difficulties can manifest in other ways – e.g. avoidance behaviours.

Typically they may have the following characteristics:

-   more confident with small groups of peers than in larger group situations
-   slow academic progress in reading and maths
-   problems following instructions and keeping track during complex tasks
-   can appear inattentive and easily distracted

What can be done to help?

Difficulties tend to have more impact at school because at home, the child and/or parent will develop their own support strategies, sometimes subconsciously. For example there might be a timetable on display with items needed for the day, or parents adapt to know how many instructions they can give a child at a time.

There are also strategies which teachers can employ – some of which many good teachers do instinctively, as part of their classroom management. However, being aware that a particular child has working memory difficulties can prompt the teacher to monitor them for signs of overload, and evaluate tasks in order to reduce working memory loads when necessary. The use of memory aids – number lines, calculators, prompt cards, can be encouraged and rewarded rather than seen as a sign of failure, and children can increasingly be taught to develop their own personal strategies, such as note taking, asking a peer for help etc.

Can working memory be improved?

Until very recently it was thought that working memory capacity was fixed, and although we could employ strategies to enhance and make better use of what we had, it was not possible to increase the amount of information it could hold. However, there are some promising indications from research that regular practice in exercises which stretch us to the limits of our capacity can lead to sustained improvements in measures of working memory.  The transfer of these new skills into actual classroom performance has yet to be consistently and reliably demonstrated, but it is certainly an area for parents and teachers to watch with interest.

A big thank you to our guest contributor,

Abi Bangerter
Educational Psychologist

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