Intervention training improves working memory in children — but doesn’t result in better academic scores, according to a large scale randomized clinical investigation published in JAMA Pediatrics1.
Academic outcomes were not improved by working memory training in young school-aged children at 12 and 24 months, despite minimal improvements seen at 6 and 12 months, reported the investigators of the largest working memory intervention trial to date.
Low working memory is associated with low academic achievement. Previous studies have indicated that 90% of children aged 6 to 7 years with reading difficulties have low working memory, a pattern that is also seen with math, even after adjusting for IQ.2,3 This latest trial is one of a number of major Australian studies of working memory in children and developmental outcomes led by Gehen Roberts, MPH, PhD, of the Center for Community Child Health at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Victoria, Australia.
The intervention used in the trial was Cogmed working memory training, the most commonly used program involving 20 to 25 sessions of approximately 45 minutes each. The children were escorted from their classrooms by research assistants in groups of up to 4, and were set at computer stations to complete 8 of 12 designated memory tasks. The program took 5-7 weeks with a new task introduced every 5 days.
Lack of Benefit Shown
Of the 452 students who met criteria to be randomized either to the Cogmed intervention program or a control of usual classroom activity, a total of 414 children completed the study; 206 in the intervention group and 208 in the control group. Dr Roberts reported that not only was there “no evident benefit to outcomes at 12 or 24 months” to working memory training in this group of elementary school children, but also that the costs of the intervention — at more than $1000 per student — did not warrant the practice on a community basis.
In fact, the loss of 15-20 hours of class time for the students in the intervention arm resulted in lower word reading (-1.81 mean difference [95% CI -3.78 to 0.15] P=.07) and math computation scores (-2.64 mean difference [95% CI -5.48 to 0.20] P=.07) after 12 months when compared with controls who continued normal study in the classroom.
Participation and retention in the trial was extraordinarily high, as 65.7% (44/67) of the schools approached for the study agreed to participate, 64.1% of parents consented (1761/747), and 97.8% of children enrolled (1723/1761) completed the initial screening assessment, indicating a high confidence in the intervention itself.
A previous clinical trial by Dunning et al4 did demonstrate a sustained mild-to-moderate increase in verbal working memory at 12 months. That study too, failed to show a correlation between gains in working memory and ultimately academic performance.
Dr Roberts and colleagues reported that, “A controversial issue is whether targeting one specific cognitive skill (eg, working memory) can improve another (eg, academic function).” They suggested that “future interventions may benefit from extending programs such as Cogmed to include real world activities.”
- Roberts G, Quach J, Spencer-Smith M, et al. Academic Outcomes 2 Years After Working Memory Training for Children With Low Working Memory: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Pediatr. 2016; doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.4568.
- Gathercole SE, Alloway TP, Willis C, et al. Working memory in children with reading disabilities. J Exp Child Psychol. 2006;93:265-281.
- Geary DC, Hoard MK, Bailey DH. Fact retrieval deficits in low achieving children and children with mathematical learning disability. J Learn Disabil. 2012;45:291-307.
- Dunning DL, Holmes J, Gathercole SE. Does working memory training lead to generalized improvements in children with low working memory? A randomized clinical trial. Dev Sci. 2013;16:915-925.