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Working Memory: Can we Improve It?

Don’t you wish you had perfect attention skills? That you could become so immersed in your studying that even hearing your name wouldn’t pull you away from the task at hand? The level of focus which you have for the task at hand is regulated by the central executive portion of the brain, where working memory is. Working memory has been studied extensively, and one example of research that demonstrates good working memory is called the cocktail party effect. This refers to the phenomenon of being in a busy room, yet still hearing your name from somewhere in the crowd, even when you are having your own conversation. When looking at the cocktail party effect, it was found that people with stronger working memory are less likely to hear their name said while in a busy room with lots of people. (Conway et al., 2001). This makes sense, because strong working memory would indicate that you are so absolutely immersed and focused on the conversation or task at hand that outside stimuli, such as your name, will not distract you. Working memory is different than short-term memory because it is much more active; it helps with reading comprehension, and has specialized parts for holding onto different types of information. Working memory is predictive of performance various activities, whereas short-term memory does not predict many cognitive processes. What is in your working memory is what you are thinking about right here and right now.

Most tests that have to do with working memory test its capacity; that is, how much information can be stored and for how long. These types of tests are called complex span tasks. An example of a complex span task is that you are given a math problem and have to say if the answer is correct, and at the same time there is a word next to the problem; at the end of the task you have to recall, in order, the list of words. The task would look something like this:

Is (10-1)+2=7 –>yes or no? BEAR

Is (3+1)(2)=8 –> yes or no? PIG

The results of complex span tasks show that working memory can hold a little bit less than 7 plus or minus 2, which is the capacity of short-term memory; specifically, working memory can hold 4 plus or minus 1. These tasks are a pure measure of how much information can be stored when the system is overloaded.  The photo below equates working memory to a whiteboard; there is only so much space to put information, so when the whiteboard begins to fill up, information should be transferred to a sticky-note (long-term memory) in order to free up more space on the whiteboard (working memory).

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 11.28.21 AM

So, if good working memory means having stronger cognitive processes, can we improve our working memory? What about in our children to prepare them for their many years of school to come? Unfortunately, the short answer tends to be that we cannot improve working memory, for it tends to be somewhat stable. However, in this post I will write about an experiment conducted in August 2014, which examines the effectiveness of working-memory training on third graders.

The study, “Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Study in a School Setting,” done by Catrin Rode, Robby Robson, Andy Purviance, David Geary and Ulrich Mayr examines just that. The purpose of this study was to see how a training program, adapted by the researchers, would affect a large sample of 3rd graders. The researchers made sure to include a diverse set of measures in the training program, such as computerized vs. paper-pencil testing, near vs. far transfer (where “near” means working memory and “far transfer” means standardized achievement tests), and immediate vs. delayed testing (when the students were tested), in order to best replicate real-world situations. The researches tried to represent real world situations through the diversity of these measures. There was a control group (no training) and a test group (training received). The two groups each received pre-tests and post-tests that tested working memory and typical academic achievement measures (CBM Math and Read) along with teacher evaluations. Children in the training group used an interactive working memory-training program for 20-30 minutes each school day, a program that was engaging for school-aged children through the use of games and reward stickers. In the study, baseline reading and math scores were obtained. Children in the training group participated in the training at the school’s computer labs, and wore headphones so as not to be distracted. The programs had animated characters that walked the children through their tasks, and students got a break every 5 minutes.

The results of this experiment showed some improvement in the control and the test group, and also differences in the teacher ratings (there were fewer reported problem behaviors). In other words, children who participated in the online training program improved in the online sessions about math. However, the effect sizes that came out of the study were still lower than the predicted effect size. Also, in the training-transfer relationship, (how well the training was put into effect in the actual classroom) the effect that intervention had on performance was minimal. However, a significant finding from this study is that even though the relationship between training and transfer gains is not extremely strong, there is still a relationship between working memory and academic performance, and that children who are high-achieving got more out of the training task than the lower-achieving children.

Unfortunately, the training did not significantly improve performance in the classroom. While there was improvement in training task performance (the actual test), the transfer gains to the classroom were not as strong. In conclusion, the researchers found very little evidence that working memory training improves working memory in children, which was measured by evaluating school skills that require working memory. The results from this experiment are similar to results of other experiments that tested whether working memory could be improved and found that it could not.

While this news may be disappointing for anybody hoping to improve their performance in school or at the workplace (or really in any setting that demands good working memory), there are ways to at least make the most out of your long-term memory by engaging in study strategies that have been proven to improve test performance. Retrieval practice, interleaving and distributed practice are all ways to help information stick in your brain for longer! (Read here for more details). The strength of working memory seems to be a trait that you are born with, and, based on previous research, it seems that it will stay constant, so we all may as well make the most of the working memory with which we are born.




Rode, C., Robson, R., Purviance, A., Geary, D. C., & Mayr, U. (2014). Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Study in a School Setting.Plos ONE,    9(8), 1-8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0104796




Categories: Attention, Memory Tags: ,
  1. October 22nd, 2015 at 21:05 | #1

    This post was wonderful to read about because in my Cognitive psychology class we are currently discussing working memory and its relationship with long-term memory. The title really caught my attention, and I thought you had a really clear and well thought out description of what exactly working memory is; our thoughts “right here and right now.” When I read the title, I was hoping for more of an explanation as to ways in which we can or cannot improve our working memory. You said in your post that the short answer was that we could not improve it, and it tends to remain stable. I was just wondering a little bit more about how researchers came to that conclusion.
    One of the connections that I made when I read that working memory is pretty much fixed varying from person to person is with a study in that tested participant’s selective attention. Individuals were given a classic Stroop task (Stroop, 1935), in which they must either congruently or incongruently verbalize the names of colors that are presented to them: (The color matches the word-congruent, or the color does not match the word-incongruent).
The participants in this study, (Spieler, Balota, & Faust, 1996), consisted of three different groups. In one group, there were college students, in another, there were people who were over 60 years of age, and in the last group, there were Dementia patients. The errors from their Stroop tasks were compiled, and it was determined that the Dementia patients were the ones who made the most errors on the task. This is because their selective attention is not very effective. In a later study by the same researchers, they kept the scores from the same college students that they had used previously, and then scanned the same students when they were older for Dementia. The individuals who did not develop Dementia later in life had much better scores on the Stroop task when they were in college than the students who did eventually develop the disease. So, even when the individuals were young, the strength of their selective attention can determine whether or not their selective will deteriorate even more when they age. Could a similar experiment be introduced that relates the same type of phenomenon to working memory? In our cognitive class, we learned that working memory is more effective without interference, and in those individuals who struggled with their selective attention, the interference that the reading pathway in their brain had over the color pathway was significant enough to cause them to repeat errors in the task.
    To read that working memory cannot be improved is a bit discouraging! I did like though, how at the end you gave us a positive anecdote, saying that there are ways to improve your study habits through improving your long-term memory!

  2. October 22nd, 2015 at 13:05 | #2

    I thought this blog post explored an interesting question about working memory. I have learned about working memory in my Cognitive Psychology class and we read the same study from this blog Conway et al., 2001. Their results showed that individuals with high span working memory were better at inhibiting unnecessary information than low span working memory individuals. This suggests that high span participants have more fluid intelligence and are able to block out irrelevant stimuli easier. So, it makes sense that the author of this blog wanted to explore if we can improve our working memory. High span individuals have stronger cognitive processes, so how might we be able to improve this if we have low span working memory? The research article this blog mentions did not find anything significant to help improve working memory in children when they tested them for skills required for working memory. However, hope is not lost because we can still improve different types of memory. We are still able to improve our long-term memory especially while studying for tests.We can use tactics such as Retrieval from recall and recognition, flash cards and quizzes to test ourselves for long term memories. This will help us in the future when we are presented with tests of information or with other important things we need to memorize and learn.

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