School-age - Chapters

Evaluate effectiveness of a working memory intervention for improving the acquisition of math facts

Research institution: Temple University

Researchers: Dr. Kenneth Thurman & Dr. Catherine Fiorello

Training program used in research: Cogmed RM

Status: Ongoing

Over the last 10 years, additional public policy has emerged which supports the necessity for evidence-based practices in education, psychology, and medicine. As a result, psychological and educational researchers have become more focused on designing studies that validate the effectiveness of specific interventions. It is within this context that the proposed project has been designed to assess the effectiveness of a working memory intervention on academic skills acquisition. The theoretical underpinnings of the study stem from research in neuroscience that stresses the early plasticity of the brain. The cognitive psychology research literature is replete with studies that demonstrate the importance of working memory and its relationship to academic performance (Fuchs, Compton, & Fuchs, 2005; Gathercole, 2005; Gathercole, Brown, & Pickering, 2003; Gathercole & Pickering, 2000; Pickering & Gathercole, 2005; Pickering, Knight, & Stegmann, 2004). Participants in this research will be second grade students who score below the 15th percentile on a test of working memory and who have also not yet gained proficiency in basic multiplication facts.

Working memory has been defined as a limited capacity system responsible for the storage and manipulation of information over a short period of time (Hitch, Towse, & Hutton, 2001). Research has confirmed that measures of working memory span are highly correlated with measures of general attainment and ability (see, e.g., Baddeley, Logie, & Nimmo-Smith, 1985; Engle, Tuholski, & Laughlin, 1999; Kyllonen & Christal, 1990; Turner & Engle, 1989), and differences between individuals with high and low working memory spans have been demonstrated on experimental tasks designed to assess basic cognitive processes (Hitch, Towse, & Hutton, 2001). Not surprisingly, working memory has also been related to performance in specific academic areas such as reading (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980; Just & Carpenter, 1992) and arithmetic (Ashcraft, 1995; Hitch, 1978; Hitch, Towse, & Hutton, 2001), although it has not been demonstrated that increases in working memory will bring about an increase in the acquisition of new academic skills.

Working memory training has been shown to improve working memory functioning and attention (Klingberg, et al., 2005; Westerberg et al., 2007), however, no studies to date have evaluated whether increasing working memory brings about simultaneous increases in the acquisition of academic skills (e.g., learning of multiplication facts).

A number of studies conducted by Gathercole and Pickering with 7, 11, and 14 year olds have shown significant relationships between working memory function and performance on standardized national achievement tests, as well as evidence that working memory scores at four years of age can predict performance on these national tests (Gathercole, Brown, & Pickering, 2003; Gathercole, Pickering, Knight, & Stegmann, 2004a, 2004b). In spite of these predictions, the question still remains as to whether working memory interventions are effective in increasing academic learning and achievement. Our study will be an initial step toward determining this.

Historically, interventions to improve working memory have shown limited effectiveness in remediating working memory deficits. Most recently, however, a computerized training program known as Cogmed has shown promise for remediating working memory deficits. Cogmed consists of exercises in verbal and visuo-spatial working memory and is commercially available. Recent Cogmed research has demonstrated its effectiveness in increasing working memory performances for children with attention difficulties (Klingberg et. al., 2005) as well as for children diagnosed with ADHD (Gathercole, 2008, personal communication; Klingberg et al., 2002). Although training in children with ADHD resulted in improvements in working memory functions and parent ratings of attention, no change in teacher ratings was found (Klingberg et al., 2005).

The purpose of the proposed research is to assess the effectiveness of a working memory intervention in improving academic functioning of children with working memory deficits. Essentially, researchers want to determine whether improving working memory will lead to simultaneous improvement in learning of math facts or whether direct teaching of math facts is equally effective without working memory training. Simply, the purpose of the study is to determine if a working memory intervention (Cogmed) has any effect on working memory and the acquisition of math facts. If the results obtained are positive, then future large scale studies will investigate Cogmed intervention on overall academic performance and achievement. Positive results would potentially impact countless students with working memory deficits.