Impacting student success: The role of working memory in the classroom

Three elementary school male students sitting next to each other talking

What is it about those kids in the classroom that don’t participate, can’t seem to focus, and seem destined for underachievement? Surely, every teacher has wondered about this. One crucial thing for teachers to consider is that these students may differ fundamentally from their peers in terms of their cognitive abilities.

Case example: Cognitive deficits in the classroom

Let’s consider Rita, a typical 3rd grade student. Although Rita has normal social relationships with her peers, she seems to be easily distracted and struggles to see classroom tasks through to completion. She is often found staring out into space, her mind wandering away from her teacher’s lesson. Rita also has a hard time following instructions and keeping her place. When asked to take out a piece of paper, write her name at the top, and raise her hand showing she is ready to start the lesson, Rita may just take out the paper and stop there. Rita’s teacher has also noticed that she is not making progress in her academics, especially in reading and math.

What researchers have found is that Rita’s struggles are common in students that have low working memory (Gathercole & Alloway, 2007). Working memory is the ability to hold information in your memory and work with it. For example, when presented with a series of instructions in the classroom, Rita needs to remember not just each individual piece (e.g., take out paper, write name, raise hand), but also she must physically carry them all out in a particular order without forgetting what she needs to do next. She needs to use her working memory to be successful in the classroom.

Individual differences in working memory

To unlock student reading potential and improve literacy rates, Deady Middle School is one school that is using Cogmed, along with iLit, to improve working memory among its students.

Research has shown that working memory is a function that develops throughout childhood and that gradually increases as we age (Gathercole & Alloway, 2007). Our ability to hold and manipulate larger sets of information in mind generally gets better as we get older. Yet there is substantial variation between different individuals’ working memory abilities. About 15% of typical learners in the classroom have low working memory (Holmes et al., 2010). Research also shows that in a classroom of 30 students, ages 7 to 8 years old, it can be expected that at least three of them would have the working memory of an average 4 year old and another three would have the capacity of an average 11 year old, which is almost an adult level of working memory (Gathercole & Alloway, 2007). Unfortunately, despite an increase over time, students with low working memory capacity do not experience an increase in working memory at the same rate as their peers with average to high working memory capacity (Gathercole & Alloway, 2007). So it is important to note that some students in the classroom will be unable to successfully complete tasks that place a heavy burden on their working memory and will struggle increasingly to keep pace with their peers.

How do we use working memory in academic tasks?

Let’s say Rita is presented with a mental math calculation such as, “find the sum of 2, 5, and 10”. She must remember all of numbers that need to be added, hold that information in mind while adding the numbers and ignoring distractions in her environment, and then produce the sum of 17. Children with poor working memory like Rita might miss the middle number and produce a sum of 12. For reading comprehension of a passage, Rita would need to read each sentence and hold them in mind while also making sense of their meaning. She would need to simultaneously process and store the information in the passage over a short time period. Common failures of working memory during academic tasks are reflected in skipping letters or words, blending together different words or sentences, and losing track of sentences or numbers (Holmes et al., 2010). All these working memory related failures would result in Rita being unable to correctly calculate a math problem or make sense of a reading passage.

Awareness of working memory and prevalence of deficit

So what does Rita’s case suggest? It’s important for teachers, administrators, and parents to become more aware of how cognitive functions like working memory affect daily lives of students. It is estimated that 80% of children with poor working memory struggle with math, reading, or both (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008). Further, low achievers are three times more likely and students with special educational needs are six times more likely to have low working memory compared to typical learners (Holmes et al., 2010). What this tells us is that the majority of students that perform poorly in school or that require additional support have working memory deficits. It is these kids who become overloaded during regular classroom activities, such as those involving multi-step instructions, and miss important learning opportunities (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008). It is these children with low working memory that we find staring out the window with their minds wandering (Kane et al., 2007) when tasks get too tough and working memory gets overloaded.

Beyond awareness to action

Beyond awareness of how different cognitive functions, like working memory, can impact behavioral and academic performance, there is a feeling of, “Ok, the student has poor working memory and will suffer academically, now what?”. Well, about 12 years ago, researchers at the Karolinska Institute and game developers in Stockholm, Sweden were busy examining how working memory could be improved for kids with ADHD. They found that if they used tasks originally developed to test working memory and instead made them progressively more difficult (i.e., adaptive) within a training program that this could improve working memory capacity (Klingberg et al., 2002; 2005). This was an important discovery because previously working memory was believed to be a fixed cognitive capacity (Klingberg et al., 2012).

Since then, the Cogmed Working Memory Training program (Pearson Education Inc.) has been available in clinical, school, and research settings to help individuals improve their working memory capacity and overcome the limitations placed on their daily life due to their low working memory capacity. To date, 47 peer-reviewed, published research papers have demonstrated that Cogmed Working Memory Training can improve not just working memory but also, the closely related function of attention (Beck et al., 2010; Gibson et al., 2011; Green et al., 2012; Gropper et al., 2014; Klingberg et al., 2005, Mezzacappa et al., 2010) and in some cases academic performance, including reading (Dahlin, 2011; Egeland et al., 2013) and math (Dahlin, 2013; Gathercole et al., 2013; Holmes et al., 2009).

Changing the game

Let’s think back to Rita, our student struggling with her working memory. What might change for Rita with use of a cognitive training tool like Cogmed? Well based on existing data, there is a 90% chance that Rita would complete the program and an 80% chance that she would improve her working memory capacity by about 30% (Cogmed Claims & Evidence). This improvement in working memory would manifest in decreased inattentive behavior, increased on task behavior, and possibly better reading comprehension and math skills. Just consider how these gains would affect Rita’s future success! Rita would no longer be one of those children who couldn’t focus and who was destined for academic failure. In this way, teachers may be able to reach the students who once seemed out of grasp.


About the Author
Kathryn Ralph

Kathryn Ralph

Kathryn Ralph, MA, has worked as a Senior Research Associate in the Clinical Assessment group at Pearson managing the global research collaborations for the Cogmed® business since 2011. Prior to joining Pearson, Kathryn earned Bachelor and Master degrees in Psychology at New York University. During her studies, Kathryn also worked as a research assistant at the NYU Clinical Cancer Institute, focusing on the psychosocial impact of breast cancer related chronic illnesses. More recently, Ms. Ralph has begun work in the Attention and Attention Disorders lab of the Psychology Department at the University of Notre Dame in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology.



Beck, S.J., Hanson, C.A., Puffenberger, S.S., Benninger, K.L., & Benninger, W.B. (2010).A controlled trial of working memory training for children and adolescents with ADHD. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 39(6), 825 -836. doi: 10.1080/15374416.2010.517162

Dahlin, K.I.E. (2011). Effects of working memory training on reading in children with special needs. Reading and Writing, 24, 479-491.doi:10.1007/s11145-010-9238-y

Dahlin, K.I.E. (2013). Working memory training and the effect on mathematical achievement in children with attention deficits and special needs. Journal of Education and Learning, 2(1), 118 – 133. doi:10.5539/jel.v2n1p118

Egeland, J., Aarlien, A.K., & Saunes, B-K. (2013). Few effects of far transfer of working memory training in ADHD: A randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE, 8(10), e75660.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075660

Gathercole, S.E., & Alloway, T.P. (2007). Understanding working memory: A classroom guide. London, UK: Hartcourt Assessment.

Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T. P. (2008). Working memory and learning: A practical guide for teachers. London, UK: Sage Publishing. Gibson, B.S., Gondoli, D.M., Johnson, A.C., Steeger, C.M., Dobrzenski, B.A., & Morrissey, R.A.(2011).

Component analysis of verbal versus spatial working memory training in adolescents with ADHD: A randomized, controlled trial. Child Neuropsychology, 17(6), 546-563.doi:10.1080/09297049.2010.551186

Green, C.T., Long, D.L., Green, D., Iosif, A., Dixon, F., Miller, M.R., Fassbender, C., & Schweitzer, J.B. (2012). Will working memory training generalize to improve off-task behavior in children with Attention- Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder? Neurotherapeutics, 9(3), 639-648. doi:10.1007/s13311-012-0124-y

Gropper, R.J., Gotlieb, H., Kronitz, R., & Tannock, R. (2014). Working memory training in college students with ADHD or LD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 18(4), 331-345. doi:10.1177/1087054713516490

Holmes, J. & Gathercole, S.E. (2014). Taking working memory training from the laboratory into schools. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, 34(4), 440-450. doi:10.1080/01443410.2013.797338

Holmes, J., Gathercole, S.E., & Dunning, D.L. (2009). Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children. Developmental Science, 12(4), F9 -F15. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00848x

Holmes, J., Gathercole, S.E., & Dunning, D.L. (2010). Poor working memory: Impact and interventions. In J. Holmes (Ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior Developmental Disorders and Interventions, Volume 39 (pp. 1- 43). Burlington: Academic Press

Kane, M. J., Brown, L. H., McVay, J. C., Silvia, P. J., Myin-Germeys, I., & Kwapil, T. R. (2007). For whom the mind wanders, and when: An experience sampling study of working memory and executive control in everyday life. Psychological Science, 18, 614–621.

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Klingberg, T., Fernell, E., Olesen, P.J., Johnson, M., Gustafsson, P., Dahlström, K., Gillberg, C.G., Forssberg, H., & Westerberg, H. (2005). Computerized training of working memory in children with ADHD – a randomized, controlled trial. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 44(2), 177-186.

Klingberg, T., Forssberg, H., & Westerberg, H. (2002). Training of working memory in children with ADHD. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 24(6), 781 -791.

Mezzacappa, E. & Buckner, J.C. (2010). Working memory training for children with attention problems or hyperactivity: A school-based pilot study. School Mental Health, 2(4), 202- 208.doi: 10.1007/s12310-010-9030-9.