Dhanashekar is a third grader in an under-resourced private school in Bangalore. He barely scores 10% on the grade math papers and oscillates between a level 0.2 RC paper (the equivalent of a grade 1 paper) and a level 0.5 RC paper (a grade 2 level paper). Dhanashekar segments and blends the same word when it appears twice in a sentence. While adding numbers, he keeps asking the teacher “Didi, what do next?” He is easily distracted and generally unable to follow well-established classroom procedures; practice and teacher-led strategies have done little to improve matters.
As an educator, you may have come across many Dhanashekars. It can be frustrating until we realise that we may not have the whole picture. Low academic performance can be attributed to multiple factors but one of them, one that has often been overlooked, could be that of working memory performance. When we look at the literature for working memory, it all starts fitting together. The question that emerges is: could interventions for improvement of working memory help our Dhanashekars bridge their gaps to grade more effectively? To answer this, we explore the concept of working memory, its relationship with academic skills and socio-economic status (SES), and present EI’s work in this context.
What is ‘working memory’?
Working memory, as the name suggests, works with information and retains it for that short amount of time that we take in manipulating it. It would be impossible to learn or do basic tasks if we didn’t have a working memory. Baddeley and Hitch (1974) proposed the ‘Working Memory Model’ that is widely accepted till date.
According to the researchers, the working memory has a manager called the ‘Central Executive’ that allocates information to its relevant processing centers. The ‘visuo-spatial scratch pad’ handles visual and spatial memory. This component helps us walk through spaces without bumping into things and helps us visualise information when we do mental math. The ‘Phonological Loop’ is the area that handles speech-related and textual information. When you read a book or talk to someone, this is the component that helps you do both, sensibly. Within this component, the ‘Phonological Store’ holds speech information whereas the ‘Articulatory Process’ loops, or repeats, written material until it goes into the store. This is also the part that helps you repeat and remember the OTP until you fill it in for the financial transaction. As you’re reading this article, the Articulatory Process is doing its work so it reaches the Phonological Store and can then be relayed to the Central Executive for comprehension.
What does working memory have to do with student learning?
From Dhanashekar’s case, one could say that working memory is important for doing arithmetic calculations or comprehending what one reads. Research, in fact, validates this claim. Working memory predicts individual variations in reading comprehension in adults and children. This has held consistently true across studies.1 For arithmetic abilities as well, correlational studies have established a strong link between scores on working memory tasks and performance on mathematical tests2. Some other studies have found evidence for poor working memory in people who perform poorly in mathematics.3 Experimental studies have demonstrated that doing a mathematical task, like verifying an addition or multiplication sum, while engaging in another working memory task leads to compromised performance in one or the other.4
Taken together, what these studies help us conclude is that working memory is essential for carrying out literacy and numeracy skills. On the face of it, this should make sense. Can you imagine being able to comprehend a passage if you couldn’t retain the previously read lines? Would you be able to carry out 24 x 12 mentally if you couldn’t hold some procedural and calculation-related information in your mind? Therefore, working memory should be assessed because it directly impacts cognitive performance on academic tasks.
Even so, how prevalent is the issue of working memory to demand attention in the education space? Research suggests that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have significantly lower performance on tasks of working memory as compared to students from higher SES.5 Unfortunately, in the Indian context, currently, it is difficult to say what the scale of this problem is; there is a dearth of such studies. Either because the assessment of working memory has not been recognised as important or because available tools to measure it are resource-heavy, working memory assessments have not been used thus far to inform learning interventions.
EI’s work in the measurement of working memory
At EI, in line with our projects on measurement of foundational literacy and numeracy skills, we created a one-to-one, interview-based assessment for students of grades 1 to 4. This assessment gives a reliable measure of students’ literacy and numeracy skills. Last year, we collected data from ~4,500 students and have published the data here. As a step forward, we are developing an app, designed to be used by students themselves, to automatize the process of data collection at scale and digitally. In this app, we are now also including tasks to measure working memory as that data is crucial to answering important questions like: Do students from lower SES backgrounds score poorly in literacy and numeracy skills not only because of circumstantial factors like teacher-student ratio and lack of exposure to learning stimuli at home but also because of compromised cognitive capacities due to poor nutrition and/or chronic diseases? What can be done to ensure school readiness among our children? What can a government school do to ensure students are getting reasonable assistance to improve their working memory and what is this reasonable assistance? We cannot answer these and other similar questions, if we know little about our students’ working memory.
For our purpose, the data for working memory can be correlated with the data on the literacy and math skills to get a preliminary idea of how much working memory could be impacting performance on these skills. To measure working memory, we have included three tasks in the app.
1) Task analogous to Corsi block-tapping test (remembering the order and position of flashing dots) : Students are shown 3 or 6 or 9 dots and some of those dots flash one by one. Students are expected to remember the position of the dots that flash and the order in which they flash. Immediately after the last flash, they are supposed to tap on the dots in the correct order. The difficulty of this task is progressive; students are taken from a Q where 3 dots are shown and one flashes to a question where 9 dots are shown and all 9 flash.
2) Free Recall Task -Text version (reading and remembering the digits): An array of digits is be shown to the student, digit-by-digit. They are expected to hold the digits in their memory and then type them using the number-pad given on the screen.
3) Free Recall Task -Sound version (listening and remembering the digits): This is similar to the task above. Rather than reading the digit one by one, they listen to a pre-recorded audio that narrates the digits.
These tasks are currently being developed and piloted on the ground with students.
Implications of this tool — the way forward
Our vision for the working memory app is not restricted to getting data in relation to foundational skills only. By measuring working memory, we might find that poor working memory is a significant mediator of low learning levels for students who are under-exposed as compared to the higher SES students. While the factors that drive educational inequity in India are complex, we believe that working memory could be an essential part of the puzzle. Assessment through this app can be administered at scale to gather data cost-effectively, as opposed to more sophisticated but resource- heavy tools like the WISC-V or brain imaging techniques used by some studies.6
With one tool, we could:
- a) establish a problem (if we find significant links between numeracy and literacy skills and performance on working memory tasks),
- b) understand the scale of the problem (statistically estimate how many students need working memory interventions), and
- c) measure the effectiveness of specific interventions (in a pre and post-test research design)
We, at EI, are constantly striving to develop a science of learning. With the development of this tool, perhaps we could kill two birds with a stone: contribute to the science of learning while concretely strengthening the movement towards educational equity.
- Nouwens, S., Groen, M. A., & Verhoeven, L. (2016). How storage and executive functions contribute to children’s reading comprehension. Learning and Individual Differences, 47, 96–102.
- Friso-van den Bos, I., van der Ven, S. H. G., Kroesbergen, E. H., & van Luit, J. E. H. (2013). Working memory and mathematics in primary school children: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 10, 29–44.
- Swanson H.L. & Jerman, O. (2006). Math disabilities: A selective meta-analysis of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 76, 249–274.
- Cragg, L., Richardson, S., Hubber, P. J., Keeble, S., & Gilmore, C. (2017). When is working memory important for arithmetic? The impact of strategy and age. PLOS ONE, 12(12), e0188693.
- Leonard, J. A., Mackey, A. P., Finn, A. S., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2015). Differential effects of socioeconomic status on working and procedural memory systems. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 554.
- Wijeakumar, S., Kumar, A., Delgado Reyes, L., Tiwari, M., & Spencer, J. P. (2019). Early adversity in rural India impacts the brain networks underlying visual working memory. Developmental Science.