Do you wish you had an easier time remembering facts and figures you just learned? Do you have trouble recalling the name of the colleague you were just introduced to? If you are like most people, you wish you had a stronger “mental sticky note”, or working memory.
If you are a teacher, it’s likely some students in your classroom are struggling with weak working memory skills which is hurting their educational experience. Or maybe your own son or daughter is curious and bright, but just can’t seem to take new concepts and put them into memory for the long-haul?
Good news! A new study from John Hopkins University provides hope that most everyone can improve their working memory with some training. Here’s a video from the school that gives an overview of their work:
What Does Working Memory Influence In Learning?
Working memory has an impact on almost every facet of learning. Working memory is one of the keystone skills used when tackling a new idea or concept. If a child is lacking in these skills they will have issues with:
- Remembering multi-step instructions
- Maintaining focus and concentration
- Learning to read
- Solving math problems by recognizing and reproducing patterns
Now, not all learning issues are directly tied to a weak working memory. But since we can work on improving this skill, it makes sense that we’d at least attempt to shore up memory before moving on to more drastic or time-intensive solutions.
Study Design and Results
(If you’d like to get into the nitty-gritty details, the study is available here. I’ll just provide a quick summary below.)
136 college-aged students were recruited for this study and broken up into groups. Two groups received training utilizing different working memory exercises, while the third was given challenging exercises that did not involve working memory exercises. This was done to have a control group. Everyone had baseline tests done and an EEG.
After 5 days of training on their own using their assigned training strategy, participants returned to the lab for another round of tests. Students using the “dual-n-back” exercise showed a 30% improvement in their working memory. There was also a significant increase in brain activity as captured by the EEG.
“People say cognitive training either works or doesn’t work. We showed that it matters what kind of training you’re doing,” said lead author Kara J. Blacker. “This one task seems to show the most consistent results and the most impact on performance and should be the one we focus on if we’re interested in improving cognition through training.”
Can I Use This Info To Help With Working Memory?
“Dual-n-back” (DnB) training programs have been around for over 10 years. At the time, there wasn’t much debate around DnB’s effect on working memory. There was controversy regarding claims IQ could be improved through training.
This initial excitement led to many software packages being developed which are available on the market today. One free, open-source program is called Brain Workshop. While not exactly the same software used by researchers in the John Hopkin’s study, Brain Workshop does have similar features. Did I also mention it is free?
Both older studies and this recent work indicate you’ll get a positive effect if you work on the DnB training for around 30 mins a day. Be forewarned – this training can be humbling! If you concentrate on the score rather than working through the training, you will likely become discouraged. It might be best to promise yourself you’ll give it at least a week before beginning, and then follow through.
How Can I Help A Child With Their Working Memory
If you are responsible for helping educate a child that struggles with working memory, DnB training could be an answer. Brain Workshop could be used for older children, but it’s really not meant for kids. It’s not a very entertaining design – no cool graphics or flashy animations. It’s not much of a toy.
The tool at BrainScale.net is a little more updated and modernized, and can be run in a browser. If you change the starting N-Back to 1 and move the number of trials to 10 or 15, you will make each training set easier on your student. You might want to increase the Trial Time to 4000 or even 5000 ms if a child is really struggling. Since training gets more challenging as a student builds up skills, don’t worry about making it too easy at the beginning. The difficulty will self-correct over time.
Some other tips:
- Make sure you provide encouragement. These programs can be hard for a child with weaker memory skills. Let them know that the training itself matters, not the score or how quickly they progress.
- Consistency is key. All studies that show improvement in working memory have participants working on these training programs daily. Give it a few weeks and likely your student should see an improvement in their memory.
Please let us know in the comments if you happen to give the dual N-back training a go. We’d love to hear your experience.