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Poor Working Memory Impedes Academic Success

According to researchers from Durham University, who surveyed over three thousand children, children who underachieve at school may just have poor working memory rather than low intelligence. They found that ten percent of schoolchildren across all age ranges suffer from poor working memory seriously affecting their learning.

The researchers also found that poor working memory is rarely identified by teachers, who often describe children with this problem as inattentive or as having lower levels of intelligence. Without appropriate intervention, poor working memory in children can affect long-term academic success into adulthood and prevent children from achieving their potential.

What is working memory?

The term working memory was coined in the 1970s by two researchers named Baddeley and Hitch, referring to the ability to temporarily hold several facts or thoughts in memory while solving a problem or performing a task. To solve an arithmetic problem like (3 X 3) + (4 X 2) in your head, for example, you need to keep the intermediate results in mind (i.e., 3 X 3 = 9) to be able to solve the entire problem. Dr. Tracy Alloway from Durham University’s School of Education explains, “Working memory is a bit like a mental jotting pad and how good this is in someone will either ease their path to learning or seriously prevent them from learning.”

Children have to use their working memory throughout the school day, whether it is keeping in mind instructions, doing arithmetic, working in groups, or even crossing the room to sharpen a pencil.

Working memory affects reading comprehension

An important and consistent finding is that working memory problems interfere with reading comprehension. Reading is a complex skill that requires the simultaneous activation of many different brain processes. When reading a word, the reader must recognize the visual configuration of letters as well as the letter order, and he must engage in segmentation (breaking the word into individual sounds). Then, while being held in working memory, the phonemes (letter sounds) must be synthesized and blended to form recognizable words.

To comprehend sentences, several more skills are necessary. The reader must not only decode the words, but also comprehend the syntax, retain the sequence of words, use contextual cues, and integrate this with existing knowledge. This must be done simultaneously in order for sentences to be understood.

At the same time, sentences must be held in working memory and integrated with one another. Each sentence is read, understood, associated and integrated with the previous one and so forth. Eventually the entire paragraph is read and the reader continues to the next one.

By the end of the chapter both the details and main idea need to be retained in working memory, otherwise the reader may have retained isolated facts but may not know the sequence of events nor understand the main idea.

Improving working memory boosts fluid intelligence 

On the positive side, students with a strong working memory are likely to do well maintaining focus and attention in a variety of academic settings. Because they’re capable to processing and remembering instructions and task goals, they can more readily be left to work independently.

According to University of Michigan research, improving working memory can boost scores in general problem-solving ability and improve fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is defined as the ability to solve new problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is defined as the ability to use learned knowledge and experience.

After initially giving subjects a standard test for fluid intelligence, the researchers gave subjects a series of training exercises designed to improve their working memory. The training was given to four groups, who repeated the exercises for eight, 12, 17, or 19 days. After the training, the researchers re-tested the subjects’ fluid intelligence.

Although the performance of untrained controls improved slightly, the trained subjects showed a significant performance improvement, which increased with time spent training. “The more training, the more improvement in fluid intelligence,” researcher Susanne Jaeggi said.

Sport success linked to working memory

A new study shows a strong link between executive functions, such as working memory and achievement in sport. The study from Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, shows that the working memory and other cognitive functions in children and young people can be associated with how successful they are on the soccer pitch.

Executive functions are special control functions in the brain that allow us to adapt to an environment in a perpetual state of change. They include creative thinking in order to quickly switch strategy, find new, effective solutions and repress erroneous impulses. The functions are dependent on the brain’s frontal lobes, which continue to develop until the age of 25.

Strong results for several executive functions were found to be associated with success on the pitch, even after controlling for other factors that could conceivably affect performance. The clearest link was seen for simpler forms of executive function, such as working memory, which develops relatively early in life.

Is your child’s working memory poor? Edublox can help:

“We enrolled Tyriq at Edublox as he had a difficult year in Grade 1 and when we changed schools for Grade 2, he struggled even more. We tried natural remedies to help him concentrate and had him at the occupational therapist but nothing was helping. We eventually took him to an education psychologist as he became unhappy and very reserved at school; he no longer wanted to attend school, so she also referred us to Edublox. His memory was not very good either, as he’d learn new words and forget how to spell them later. He was afraid to read or write as the had lost his confidence. He was failing math and English due to the fact that he was struggling to read. We decided to try Edublox as a last sort before going the medical route. Tyriq’s struggles were a battle we were not sure we could win.


“Tyriq is a lot more confident in his reading and writing. He reads words on TV, spells freely and is generally a much happier child. His marks have also improved substancially. He is now proud to show us his school work and homework. He now reads every evening and spells words a lot easier than before. Edublox has helped him build and rebuild his educational foundation. His memory has improved immensly and learning has become a lot easier as Edublox has equipped him with the right tools. Without the Doringkloof Edublox team’s support and knowledge we would not have been able to achieve the successes we are currently achieving!

In closing 

“He still has some difficulty with spelling and memory when he’s tired, but we are achieving our goals and most importantly, he is achieving all the milestones that a Grade 2 pupil should be achieving. He is keeping up in class and excelling in some classes. He has grown in leaps and bounds and I can’t praise Edublox enough for all the support and love that they’ve shown Tyriq so far!”

Chanaaz Blauw    

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