On Thursday, October 18, an expert psychologist, Tracy Alloway, presented at Dartmouth College on the importance of working memory in education. Her work has addressed the shortcomings of previous methods used to diagnose learning disabilities. Through a more accurate cognitive assessment known as the Automated Working Memory Assessment (AWMA-II), Alloway has helped diagnose individuals with poor working memory and helped them attain the education they deserve.
Cognitive assessments like WISC (the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) measure a student’s intelligence using a number, the IQ. While the results include a Working Memory Index, they do not distinguish between verbal and visual working memory. Students with weak visual working memory and strong verbal working memory are neglected in these types of assessments. Furthermore, WISC is restricted mainly to psychologists and clinicians. Teaching professionals cannot apply WISC in classroom settings.
Instead, Alloway advocates AWMA-II, a fully automated cognitive assessment that produces scores which account for both verbal and visual working memory. AWMA-II is also more efficient than tests like WISC, as it can be administered to a large group of individuals at once.
AWMA-II includes short-term memory (STM) and working memory (WM) components. STM involves information recall, while WM involves the integration and manipulation of information. For example, if a student hears a set of numbers, a verbal WM assessment may require the student to repeat the numbers in reverse order.
AWMA-II is also versatile. Depending on the age group, AWMA-II may ask an individual to integrate up to nine pieces of information at once. AWMA-II also assesses behavior using a working memory rating scale (WMRS), in which teachers, friends, and family complete a 20-item checklist to create a WMRS profile for the individual. They rank behaviors, such as “abandons activities before completion,” from not typical to very typical.
Working memory also measures the space, time, and effort that the subject applies to a task. Those with deficient working memory may have a low capacity to remember many pieces of information at once (space), a low processing rate (time), and difficulty keeping track of information at once (effort). Those with low WM have trouble following long sequences of instructions and reading long phrases.
Working memory, unlike IQ, is not affected by one’s environment. Alloway found that WM scores showed no disparity for children from different financial backgrounds or zip codes, and even those whose parents experienced different levels of education.. Alloway suggests that the reason is because WM measures the ability to learn while IQ measures a student’s “knowledge base,” which is dependent on past experiences.
Assessments of working memory have become more prevalent in education. Now, even some standardized tests include WM assessments. Alloway’s research has shown that WM is more important than IQ. In an experiment involving 600 five-year-olds, Alloway found that working memory was a better indicator of students’ learning outcomes than IQ. Six years later, Alloway assessed the same students and found that working memory remained an indicator of the students’ reading, spelling, and math skills.
A deficiency in working memory is associated with Dyspraxia, ADHD, autistic spectrum disorder, language impairment, developmental coordination disorder, and reading and math disabilities. These findings have changed lives. A Californian mother, whose son has weak WM but fine IQ, thanks Alloway, “My son has Autism and he was dropped from funding because they said he does not have a delay in learning. I believe it has everything do to with your report and information you supplied” that “they received our exhibits and decided to qualify him.” Through programs like Jungle Memory, both children and adults can improve their WM. Alloways reaffirms that we can train working memory to improve education.