It is quite common to search the reason for children´s school difficulties in the way they process information. Not least shortcomings in the so called working memory have been identified as possible causes of difficulties.
Working memory is involved in the processing of information and has a limited capacity both concerning how much information that can be processed and for how long it can be processed. A distinction is made within working memory research between the processing of visual and auditory information, respectively.
Several researchers believe that pupils with diagnoses such as ADHD and dyslexia have problems with their working memory and that the training of working memory would benefit their school achievement.
Computer programs for the training of working memory are available. One example of a working memory exercise is to practice how many numbers in a sequence that can be recalled. The difficulty of the task increase as the pupils become more skillful. The more numbers recalled, the better working memory capacity.
Some early studies indicated that working memory training seemed to show great promise as a method for children with different types of disabilities. It is easy to imagine the enormous possibilities that opens up. By training one important cognitive process the pupils´ achievements can increase in a range of areas. Similar to when ones computer gets extra memory capacity, everything runs more smoothly and efficient.
But what view does research today portray of the possibility to increase achievement by working memory training?
Effects of working memory training
Unfortunately there seems to be very limited support that working memory training will have positive effects on school achievemt regardless of what group we talk about. In four recent systematic reviews that all concern effects of working memory training (see references at the end of the blog) it is concluded that working memory training can increase achievement in similar tasks as the ones that are practiced but that the training does not transfer to other types of tasks as e.g. school tasks.
Differently put, the conclusion is that the participants in the training programs become better in what they are practicing. It can be added that in the systematic review performed by Rapport et al, the conclusion drawn is that no cognitive training at all has positive effects for children with ADHD.
One problem that emerges when one wants to investigate the effects of a training program concerns to what group the achievement of the group receiving training should be compared. In several studies what is termed a “passive” control-group has been used, i.e. the group receiving training is compared to pupils that are not involved in any activity at all. In an “active” control group, on the other hand, pupils are performing similar activities to the pupils in the control group, however without participating in working memory training per se.
It is of course more scientifically valid to use an “active” control group since effects having to do with expectations and motivation are controlled for, at least partly. When a training group has higher achievement on a follow-up test than a “passiv” control group we have no way of knowing whether this is due to the training itself or the increased motivation and expectations that the participation in a training program creates to some extent regardless of its content.
Melby-Lervåg and Hulme (2016) reanalyze two earlier research reviews where positive effects of working memory training were reported. In their analysis the effect of the training disappears when methodological demands are increased as when only studies with “active” control groups are included. However, we shall not draw the conclusion that the discussion about the effects of working memory training will cease and it should be noted that three of the four critical reviews that I have mentioned are made by the same research group/network. But judging from these four reviews it does not seem as if the evidence support those who recommends this kind of training.
Two additional aspects
There are two additional critical aspects of working memory training for pupils with different types of difficulties that I want to discuss. The first one relates to the issue about what control groups to use discussed above. In a psychological/cognitive perspective it becomes important that pupils in the control group perform similar activities as the pupils who receive working memory training.
However, in an educational context it is more interesting to compare working memory training with other methods developed to increase educational achievement among pupils with different types of difficulties. Without having the possibility to get into details about this aspect I only would like to point out that there is a whole range of methods that have been shown to have very good effects on educational achievement for pupils with different kind of difficulties. Thus, it seems more than reasonable to use such teaching methods rather than working memory training with unclear outcomes.
Finally I will also say a few words about the theory behind working memory training. The theory states that by practicing certain type of acts one can achieve effects on a totally different kind of acts since the former are considered more fundamental than the latter. I believe it is the different way around.
By teaching pupils the acts that taken together constitute the activity to be grasped they will acquire mastery of the activity. If we take our point of departure in the former theory, we choose to train the pupils´ working memory. If we depart from the latter theoretical standpoint we will teach children to decode letters, understand texts or whatever is at stake. A vast amount of research support the latter theory.
Lervåg, M. & Hulme, C. (2013) Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 270-291.
Melby-Lervåg, M. & Hulme, C. (2016) There is no convincing evidence that working memory training is effective: A reply to Au et al. (2014) and Karbach and Verhaeghen (2014). Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 23, 324-330-
Rapport, M., Orban, S., Kofler, M. & Friedman, L. (2013) Do programs designed to train working memory, other executive functions, and attention benefit children with ADHD? A meta-analytic review of cognitive, academic, and behavioral outcomes. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 1237-1252.
Redick, T., Shipstead, Z., Wiemers, E., Melby-Lervåg, M. & Hulme, C. (2015) What´s working in working memory training? An educational perspective. Educational Psychological Review, 27(6), 617-633.