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Getting Sharp by Training Working Memory

How training working memory can be a valuable supplement for math and other classroom activities.

By Martin Buschkuehl May 20, 2014
In order to excel in sports, let’s say running, you will benefit from strong leg muscles and a powerful cardiovascular system.
It follows that pursuing any activity that focuses on improving the capabilities of your legs, as well as your heart and lungs (e.g., swimming or climbing stairs) will have a positive impact on your running times.
Is there an equivalent of the cardiovascular system in our brain that represents a similar fundamental basis for mental abilities?

Research suggests that a theoretical construct called “working memory” is a prime candidate to take on that role. Working memory comprises our ability to hold information in our mind for a limited period of time and to do something with that information at the same time.

A good illustration of a task that involves working memory is mental math, such as solving 12 x 23. One way to solve this problem is to first calculate two intermediate results (10 x 23 = 230 and 2 x 23 = 46) and to add these two results in a second step (230 + 46 = 276). In order to solve such problems, we have to store the intermediate results, and we also have to manipulate the information we hold in our mind by multiplying and adding—thus, we engage our working memory.

Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that individuals with a higher working memory capacity are better at math. So, would training working memory make us better at math? 

Training Working Memory

The idea of training working memory is not new. The great William James (1842-1910), widely considered as the “Father of American Psychology,” proposed that training attentional and memory skills would sharpen our general mental abilities and thereby improve educational achievement.

And indeed, two British scientists at the University of Cambridge recently demonstrated that working memory training produces significantly better math proficiency in sixth-grade students. Although this finding is promising, one has to keep in mind that despite being a rather old idea, the scientific investigation of working memory training is still relatively young and has been actively pursued for only about a decade.

There are still many open questions—we still do not know how the optimal training task should look like, how long the training should be, how long any effects last, and for whom the training works best. Nonetheless, the results of the British scientists’ study, as well as more than a dozen of successful training studies I have conducted with my collaborators around the globe, strongly suggest that training working memory holds much promise. 

Naturally, working memory training has not the same effect in everyone. In a recent scientific contribution, my collaborators and I have demonstrated that motivation plays a crucial role in determining whether working memory training has a positive impact on untrained activities such as solving novel problems. It makes intuitive sense that at least a certain minimum of motivation is necessary to result in a measurable improvement.

Drawing an analogy to physical exercise, buying a gym membership will not be enough to improve your cardiovascular fitness; you have to go to the gym and work out.

The Limits of Working Memory Training

It is important to note that working memory training cannot replace curriculum.

Acquiring math skills, for example, requires the learning of concepts and procedures. Working memory training will not replace acquiring either skill, but it might facilitate faster and easier acquisition by providing more efficient cognitive resources to do so.

As such, working memory training has the potential to be a valuable supplement to current classroom activities. Research also suggests that working memory training can be especially helpful to kids with reduced working memory capacity, as often observed in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or similar conditions. I also repeatedly received feedback from our study participants saying that the training helped them become more efficient at reading study material and allow them to better follow lectures.

Researchers use many different training tasks to train working memory. A popular task that my collaborators and I have been using is the n-back task, which is quite complex and requires a variety of mental processes for successful execution. In one variant that we developed for children, a frog jumps from one lily pad to another, one at a time. If the participant is asked to do the easiest level of this task, a 1-back task, then the participant has to respond whenever the frog lands on the same lily pad as the one the frog jumped to just before.

WorkingMemory-resized-600.jpg

On a 2-back level for example, the participant has to respond whenever the frog lands on the lily pad that he was on two jumps ago—thus, one has to always remember where he was at in-between. The difficulty of the task is often adjusted adaptively on a minute-by-minute basis. If a certain accuracy criterion is met, then the level of n is increased by one; otherwise, it remains the same or is decreased by one.

At MIND Research Institute, we not only carefully follow the development of working memory training in scientific literature, we also conduct our own research with the goal of providing the best possible learning experience for students working with the ST Math game-based program.

Martin Buschkuehl, Ph.D., is Education Research Director at MIND Research Institute. For more than a decade Dr. Buschkuehl’s research has been focused on improving cognitive abilities in children, as well as young and older adults.

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