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What is working memory?

Working memory is a temporary storage system under attentional control that underpins our capacity for complex thought. Imagine, for example, multiplying two numbers together. The numbers need to be held in a short-term store whilst using learned multiplication rules to perform the calculation. Similarly, during reading comprehension text has to be maintained whilst it is processed to uncover its meaning. Working memory is therefore involved in many everyday tasks in the school classroom, and is sometimes considered as a gateway for learning.

Although there are several theoretical models of working memory, the most widely accepted model is that proposed by Professor Alan Baddeley, who portrayed working memory as consisting of four components. At the heart of working memory is a central executive system, a domain-general limited capacity system often likened to a mechanism of attentional control. The central executive is supported by two domain-specific storage components: the phonological loop responsible for the maintenance of auditory information, and the visuo-spatial sketchpad specialised for dealing with visual and spatial information. Baddeley also identified the episodic buffer as a further subcomponent of working memory, responsible for integrating information from the subcomponents of working memory and long-term memory.

There is now substantial evidence for Baddeley’s multiple-component model. This has come from dual-task studies in cognitive psychology, the study of brain-damaged patients, and investigations of the brain areas that are active during working memory tasks. Research has also revealed that a working memory model comprised of a central executive, phonological loop and visuo-spatial sketchpad provides a good fit to data collected from students throughout the childhood years. This model of working memory has also formed the basis for much research examining the links between working memory and students’ learning.

Reference: Alan Baddeley, Michael Eysenck and Michael Anderson Memory. Psychology Press, 2009.

The diagnostic value of working memory assessment

Working memory plays an important role in supporting the acquisition and development of educational skills. Performance on working memory measures is highly predictive of a number of scholastic skills, including literacy, mathematics, and comprehension. Between the ages of 7 and 14 years, students who perform poorly on measures of working memory also typically perform below expected standards in national curriculum assessments of English, mathematics, and science.

Working memory difficulties are known to be associated with a wide range of learning and neurodevelopmental disorders. Students with general reading difficulties typically show poor performance on measures of the central executive. Students with dyslexia and specific language impairments display poor performance on measures of the central executive and phonological loop. Students with mathematical difficulties perform below expected levels on measures of the central executive and visuo-spatial sketchpad. Hence performance on the tests in Lucid Recall can be used diagnostically to help understand the nature of a student’s educational difficulties, and sometimes to give advance warning of likely difficulties as they get older, enabling early intervention measures to be taken in order to alleviate the educationally disadvantaging effects of memory limitations. Advice and illustrative case studies can be found in the Lucid Recall Manual.

Reference: Professor Sue Gathercole and Dr Tracy Packiam Alloway Working Memory and Learning. Sage, 2008.

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