Often, the first time parents hear the term Working Memory (WM) is when their child undergoes assessment for learning difficulties. Teachers generally understand that a student’s WM dictates the relative ease or difficulty with which they ‘hold’ information for short periods of time, say to follow classroom instructions, write and spell accurately or complete a mathematical calculation. But there’s more to working memory.
For several years now, I have been seeing recommendations in assessment reports, or provision in individualised learning plans that refers to intervention programmes or computer programs designed to boost WM. While grand claims have been made related to the efficacy of computer-based cognitive training programmes, independent reviews of such training interventions have not found a direct link between intervention and improvement.
Teachers in particular appear to attribute to poor WM many of the difficulties that might be caused by delayed executive function (EF) development. This is perhaps not surprising, given that publishers of assessment and intervention materials for use in education continue to market programmes that claim to bost WM. For the moment, though, the only confirmed benefit of computerised WM training is improved performance on the practised and subsequently assessed tasks, with no discernable evidence that skills might be transferable to everyday and academic activities.
Before attempting to unpick EF or WM, let’s consider short-term memory. This is the capacity to store information for a short time, for immediate use. For example, remembering an unfamiliar phone number or something like a one-time-code for long enough to use it without needing to check. In daily life or learning situations, working memory allows us to remember e.g. instructions, or someone else’s point of view in a discussion and what we might be planning to say next, or what’s just happened in life or a story unfolding, whether listening, watching or reading. Here there can sometimes be differences between a person’s verbal (or auditory) short-term memory and what they are able to remember with the benefit of visuals; examples of these might be video images or prompts in the form of picture cue-cards.
Parents and teachers of young children will be aware of the need to foster certain abilities as children develop, and, where necessary, to model and talk through behaviours, strategies and responses to enable children to cope with increasing independence as the range and number of tasks and activities they must face grows dramatically in the first years of school. Vygotsky describes this imparting of skills and knowledge through scaffolded learning in terms of a Zone of Proximal Development, i.e. an adult, or more advanced learner, supports the embedding of skills so that they become automatic. According to this model, the learner becomes able to accomplish a task independently, and any necessary scaffolding of the next challenge begins.
Over time, most children acquire strategies and develop automaticity for certain tasks, no longer requiring to be prompted or reminded of the steps necessary to complete daily classroom or home routines, such as getting ready for school, arriving in the classroom, participating in learning activities or play and acquiring basic academic skills for developing literacy and numeracy. Each of these achievements employs, to some extent, the child’s developing EF, and would typically at least begin to become evident by the age of seven. When these skills do not become established in a timely manner, teachers and parents must find ways to support their development.
This is the capacity to use information you have been given and process it, such as carrying out multiple step tasks. In the classroom, this might include reading a text to the end and remembering what it was about, copying from the board, accurately writing down a sentence that has been mentally composed or managing more complex mathematical calculations. It can also affect a person’s ability to recall the order in which tasks must be completed, such as getting dressed in the right order, remembering the order of tasks for getting ready for school, or completing homework steps in the right order.
For centuries, scientists and philosophers have compared what humans can remember minute to minute and what can be passed into or retrieved from memory. The idea of what we now call working memory can be traced back to developments in the conceptualisation of short-term and long-term memory in the 1960s. Then, in 1974, Baddeley and Hitch published a theory referring to a central executive model of working memory that has prevailed in education, particularly with reference to dyslexia, for over 40 years. Current models of EF agree that WM may be central, but it is not alone in facilitating (or impeding) learning.
Top: Baddeley & Hitch (1974), Barkley (1997)
Bottom: Zelazo & Müller (2002), Diamond (2006)
Graphics by Sarah Gillie ©2016
Since the 1800s, scientists have believed that the frontal lobes of the human brain are responsible for aspects of human behaviour. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) has connections to other brain areas and functions, and EF is more than a function – or set of functions – of the PFC. Nevertheless, EF, WM and the PFC are often lumped together. This conflation seems to account in part for the continuing fuzzy definitions of EF, and for the tendency for some models of EF to focus on one or limited aspects. All of which, in turn contributes to confusion regarding WM’s role in learning and academic tasks.
Perhaps inspired by the 1974 Baddeley and Hitch central executive model of WM, this seems particularly prevalent in texts targeting teachers and parents. One risk of this view is that it may lead to a perception of EF as somehow having overall control, which may be unhelpful oversimplification as seen in many graphics shared on social media.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to share some tips to support learners with delayed EF development and weakness in WM. In the meantime, there’s a bank of blogs and graphics related to EF here (or select the executive function tab at the top of this webpage).
Please feel free to add any questions into the comments, and I will do my best to answer them in future blogs.
References and further reading
Baddeley, A., and Hitch, G., (2000) ‘Development of Working Memory: Should the Pascual-Leone and the Baddeley and Hitch Models be Merged?’ Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 72 (2) pp. 128-137.
Barkley, R. (2012) Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. New York: The Guilford Press.
Diamond, A. (2013) ‘Executive Functions’ Annual Review of Psychology, 64 pp. 135-168.
Gathercole, S. and Alloway, T. (2007) Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide. London: Harcourt Assessment.
Melby-Lervåg, M. and Hulme, C. (2013) ‘Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review.’ Developmental psychology, 49(2) pp.270-291.
Moreau, D. and Waldie, K. (2015) ‘Developmental learning disorders: from generic interventions to individualized remediation’. Frontiers in Psychology,6, 2053.
Orban, S., Rapport, M., Friedman, L. and Kofler, M. (2014) ‘Executive Function/Cognitive Training for Children with ADHD: Do Results Warrant the Hype and Cost?’ The ADHD Report, 22(8) pp.8-14.
Shipstead, Z., Redick, T., and Engle, R. (2012) ‘Is Working Memory Training Effective?’ Psychological Bulletin, 138 (4) pp. 628-654,
Zelazo, P. and Müller, U. (2010) ‘Executive function in typical and atypical development.’ in Goswami, U. (ed.) The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development, Second edition. Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.