RoboMemo remobilizes working memory

Publication: The Stanford Daily
Published: May 23rd, 2006
By: Leslie Georgatos

I’m going to give you a sequence of numbers. Now, try repeating them backward. Congratulations, you’ve just exercised your working memory.

“‘Working memory is the ability to focus on important information and manipulate it to solve complex problems,” says Alicia Alonso, research associate and lecturer at the School of Education. “If you’re listening to a professor talk, you need to be able to pick out key facts and use them later.”

Alonso recently coordinated logistics for a graduate student designed research project using computer learning programs to increase working memory. Principal contributors Kun Yuan and Jeff Steedle, graduate students in psychological studies in education, met with students at local Los Altos Junior High School for their study.

“I’m most excited about the potential to improve students’ learning capacity through the application of technology,” said Yuan of the project, which is largely her brainchild and will serve as the basis for her dissertation.

For five weeks, middle school students immersed themselves in training sessions with a Swedish computer program by CogMed called RoboMemo, which specializes in improving working memory. Common exercises focused on remembering spatial, visual and alphanumeric messages, like memorizing and reversing lists of numbers. A control group completed science lessons and worked with an easier version of RoboMemo. Diagnostic tests taken before and after training catalogued changes in the students’ abilities.

Steedle, along with Yuan and other graduate students, was there every morning to serve as a computerized cognitive training coach. After studying graphs of each student’s performance, he encouraged and helped them set goals for improvement.

“The computer program increases in difficulty with the students’ performance,” Steedle says. “It constantly pushes the limits of their working memory, which can be tiring, boring and frustrating. That’s why you need coaches.”

Yuan spent a significant amount of her time coordinating the efforts of student computer training coaches.

“I felt very happy when I saw coaching strategies motivate those students to work very hard in the training and make steady progress,” Yuan says.

The study found significant improvement in working memory for students who completed the training. Students who had undergone the training were best at tests of working memory resembling RoboMemo exercises. Tests of science learning ability and fluid intelligence, however, showed little significant difference between the groups.

“Computerized cognitive training effectively improved regular students’ short-term memory and ability to control cognitive tasks in a school setting,” Yuan says. “Further studies are warranted to examine the training’s impact on students’ fluid intelligence and science achievement.”

This project was funded by a grant from the Wallenberg Global Learning Network, a project intended to foster collaboration between researchers at Stanford and researchers in Sweden.

Past studies in Sweden had shown that RoboMemo could help students with ADHD improve their working memory in a one-on-one setting. This study expanded on those findings by measuring the program’s effectiveness with “normal” kids in a school setting.
“The idea is that a lot of schools are taking time out from teaching to do test preparation,” Alonso says. “We are trying to find ways to help kids get more out of their learning so that they can spend less time on test preparation.”

Future research will continue to explore the nature of working memory and potential methods for its improvement, Alonso says.

For Yuan, this experiment was just the beginning. The study will be the focus of her dissertation, so she will spend the upcoming weeks analyzing data and exploring ways to measure working memory.

Yuan, Steedle and Alonso are all members of the Stanford Education Assessment Laboratory, which conducts research on learning in the sciences under Education Prof. Richard Shavelson.

Shavelson’s assistance as a research coordinator and as an advisor has meant a great deal to both Steedle and Yuan.

“It’s a great, great learning opportunity for me to work with him as research assistant and teaching assistant,” Yuan says. “I also enjoy working with other people in our group. They are very supportive to me all the time.”

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