However, the lack of long-term benefits and cost of the working memory intervention make its overall usefulness questionable.
Low academic achievement in young children is a significant public health issue. Past research has shown that one cause of low achievement may be a lower than average level of working memory, the cognitive function which is responsible for temporarily storing and manipulating information needed to support learning. Children with low working memory may be slow readers, or may have difficulty with early math concepts, leading to failures in classroom activities. Over time, such deficits, if not detected and addressed, can result in children falling farther and farther behind.
A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics examined whether a computerized adaptive working memory intervention program could produce improvements in long-term academic outcomes for children 6 to 7 years of age who were classified as having low working memory.
The study was conducted among 456 first-graders at 44 schools in Melbourne, Australia who had been assessed as having low-working memory. Half of the students were randomized to a control group, and received normal classroom lessons. The other half of the students (the intervention group) completed 20 to 25 sessions of a computerized training program called Cogmed, with each session lasting 45 minutes and administered during the school day.
During these sessions for the intervention group, children completed tasks that involved the temporary storage and manipulation of verbal and/or visuospatial information in a computer game format. The Cogmed program was designed as a training program, providing incrementally more challenging tasks to match the child’s mastery, and giving positive feedback upon successful completion of each task.
Children in both the control and intervention groups were then followed for a period of 2 years and assessed by means of verbal and visuospatial testing which was administered at 6, 12, 24 and 48 months after completion of the training program.
Results of the study showed some benefits from the Cogmed program in the short-term, but no perceptible lasting benefits compared with children who had received normal classroom lessons. At 6 months post-training, children in the intervention group scored higher than children in the control group on visuospatial short-term memory and verbal working memory tests. However, only the visuospatial short-term memory benefits remained after 12 months, and none were apparent by 24 months.
Moreover, even the short-term benefits did not appear to translate into better academic performance. Children in the intervention group in fact had poorer word reading and math computation scores at 12 months than children in the control arm. Ratings of the children’s attention, social-emotional difficulties, and general quality of life that were provided by parents and teachers similarly pointed to a lack of noticeable benefit resulting from the working memory training.
Researchers noted that costs of administering the training program – over AUS $1000 per child – were not trivial. The program also required children to be absent from the classroom and thus to miss about 15 to 20 hours of teaching time.
Taking all factors into account, the authors of the study concluded that, while some short-term benefits appeared to result from the working memory training, the loss of classroom time, cost, and lack of lasting benefit, recommended against the wide-spread administration of working memory training through the format used in the study.
Written By: Linda Jensen