Struggling Texas Students Realize Academic Gains After Improving Working Memory With Pearson’s Cogmed

Natalia ISD – Natalia, Texas

While conducting a literature review for her doctoral research, Rhonda Cunningham, specialist in school psychology for Natalia Independent School District (ISD), discovered compelling research about Cogmed Working Memory Training from Pearson. Excited about its potential, she persuaded her administration to see how the Cogmed program could help struggling students in this rural district located outside of San Antonio, Texas.

Cunningham started small – with a group of five students with identified learning disabilities, all sixth-graders with working-memory deficits. The sample group saw so much improvement after using the Cogmed program that she is now poised to expand the program to 30 additional special-education students in grades 2 through 12, all with attention deficits and learning disabilities, many of whom will be part of a formal research study.

“The Cogmed training was very, very successful with our first group of students, with nearly all of them showing dramatic improvement – of 16 to 25 percent – in working memory, and related gains in reading and math scores. One student was very reluctant, but even so, she showed gains, too,” she said. “I’m excited to move forward with the Cogmed program with more of our students who have obstacles to learning.”

Cogmed Working Memory Training is an evidence-based, computerized program designed by leading neuroscientists to improve attention by effectively increasing working-memory capacity over a five-week training period. By training a tightly defined cognitive function with the Cogmed program, students create a cascading effect of improvements. They are better able to pay attention, resist distractions, self-manage and learn.

In this district of four schools serving approximately 1,100 students, 79 percent of Natalia ISD’s students are Hispanic, many are English language learners, and more than three-fourths of the population is eligible for free or reduced lunch.

In the past, Cunningham has tried every “low-tech” strategy she could find to help students with working-memory deficits, which are a common issue for students with learning disabilities. None, however, showed much promise, “until this,” she said.

In launching the initial group, Cunningham obtained parent permission and then conducted pre-testing using working-memory subtests from a memory battery. Cogmed implementation was easy, she said. The students worked on the program during their regularly scheduled intervention period, so they wouldn’t miss academic instruction, in a temporary laptop lab. Cunningham and an intern – both trained as Cogmed coaches – monitored the students’ progress, offering encouragement when they showed any signs of fatigue or frustration. “Often, a short break and a little pep talk were all that were needed when their performance was declining,” she said. At the end of each week, the students were rewarded for their efforts with a small celebration including treats and music.

The students’ intervention teacher was supportive of the process, and her enthusiasm grew as she saw the positive changes in the students, said Cunningham.

Since the initial group of students completed the training, their classroom teachers are reporting improvement in grades, better concentration and increased ability to remember what is taught, she said. “They have spread the word, and other teachers are asking about implementing the Cogmed program on a larger scale. Everyone wants it.”

Students, she said, are reporting that their academic work “is easier now – that they can focus better in math and reading.”

Cunningham compared student test scores before and after using the Cogmed program, and now, three months later, they are continuing to see gains. “The gains are holding or even increasing,” she noted. She will continue to track growth on the state assessment in the spring.

One student who quietly worked through the Cogmed training without offering much feedback was enthusiastic about the results, she said. “He said, ‘This was so cool, and I’m really glad I did it.’ When I asked him what he would tell other students considering Cogmed, he said, ‘Oh, man, I would tell them to do it.’”

When following up with the parents of the students who completed the Cogmed training, Cunningham was met with gratitude. “They were happy for their children to receive this service,” she said.

Cunningham said her vision is to provide remediation for students with disabilities to the point that they no longer need special-education services. Ultimately, she hopes to be able to screen students in kindergarten for working-memory deficits and use the Cogmed program as an early intervention. “Our administration is supportive of this idea because of the results we’ve already seen. If we can find deficits early, there’s enormous potential to turn things around,” she said.

Cunningham also foresees helping students with autism with the Cogmed program. “I predict that it will help them, too,” she said.

“I’m really enthusiastic about this program,” she said. “The Cogmed program is an amazing tool.”