Workshop - `Working Memory and Education`

On Friday 27th March I attended a workshop entitled ‘Working Memory and Education’. The workshop was aimed at informing educational psychologists about the importance of working memory in children, and particularly in the classroom environment, for example, when children have to remember lists of instructions in the correct order. However, it was also very relevant for other researchers and practitioners in the field, encouraging discussion about how we can apply research findings, and best routes for intervention.

Some excellent talks were given from individuals who have contributed a great deal to this field of developmental research, including Dr Joni Holmes (University of Cambridge), Prof. Chris Jarrold (University of Bristol), Dr Tracy Alloway (University of North Florida) and Dr Debbora Hall (University of Bristol). They discussed topics such as what working memory is, how working memory works, why it is important, how we can measure it and how we can improve it. The workshop was also an opportunity to present the first screening of some films that have been made at the University of Bristol in a project run by Debbora Hall and Chris Jarrold, about working memory in the classroom. The films are designed for educational psychologists and related professionals.  I was also lucky enough to be involved in these films, and discuss working memory training strategies in a short clip. Here is the link to the films:

Prof. Chris Jarrold kicked off the talks to introduce us to the concept of working memory, the components of it, and how to measure these different components. Chris highlighted that working memory remains the best cognitive predictor of other academic abilities such as maths and literacy.
Chris put forward the notion that, along with storage capacity and processing speed, ‘forgetting rate’ appears to be an important determinant of working memory performance. Working memory involves storing information in the face of distraction (processing tasks). The amount an individual can store (capacity) is important, as well as the speed at which an individual can process information. On top of this, Chris and colleagues’ data indicates that the rate at which an individual forgets will additionally impact on their performance in the given working memory task.

Dr Joni Holmes next discussed work that her and colleagues have been carrying out in Cambridge at a new research centre: The Centre for Attention, Learning and Memory (CALM). Children who appear to be experiencing any difficulties in attention, learning and/or memory can be referred to the clinic, whereby the researchers will attempt to understand the cause/s of the child’s difficulties and how best to overcome them. The referrer then receives a report containing the results of the assessments which they can use to inform the way that they choose to support that child. This represents an excellent step in reciprocity between research and practitioner level. The facility opened in September 2014 and has been successful so far, appearing to fill a necessary niche in the area.
A key finding so far was that children labelled as having attentional problems, children labelled as having working memory problems, and other children labelled in other ways, in fact appear to experience many of the same difficulties in different tests of cognitive performance. The message is therefore that it may not be appropriate or particularly helpful to label children e.g., as having poor memory, or having poor attention, and treating them on the basis of this label. Instead the focus should be on interventions to achieve specific outcomes.

Dr Tracy Alloway next gave an excellent overview of the various factors that contribute to working memory performance, and in particular highlighted the impact of working memory ability. Tracy noted that while IQ is typically used as a benchmark for academic success, her research findings suggest that working memory (e.g., what you do with what you know) is more important in predicting academic success. Tracy discussed working memory in the context of 3 I’s: firstly that working memory is Important, secondly that it is Indifferent to a wide array of factors, and thirdly that it can be Improved, given the right training. Some examples were presented, of the large negative impact of working memory difficulties on children’s classroom abilities and behaviour, and the importance of recognising and addressing these working memory difficulties was highlighted.  Tracy has published a selection of popular science books on the topic of working memory and how to improve it:

The workshop came to a close with Dr Debbora Hall presenting the new films about working memory for educational psychologists (link above).
All in all it was a really interesting workshop and I think it is a very positive step in the direction of engaging research professionals and practitioners from different but closely related fields. It is important that research findings are translated to the field such that they can have a positive impact in improving practice.

- Written by Liz Smith -

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