Why Your Working Memory is Important for Your General Intelligence

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Peter Barnes

DrMarthaBurns"Working memory is vitally important for learning. But it is important to remember that memory and attention aren't subclinical skills, they are actually part of what we call executive function. They are part of what matures as you get older that enables you to be effective and goal oriented. They are the part of what makes a student an effective student, a successful student.", said Dr Martha Burns in a recent presentation.

Dr Martha Burns is a neuroscientist, author of over 100 journal articles and multiple books, and a leading expert on how children learn. 

Here is a summary of what she said in her presentation.

'Working memory is your RAM as I say. It's closely related to general intelligence. Research done in 2008 is now a hallmark study at the University in Bern, Switzerland by Susanne Jaeggi who's a friend of mine, where she just took typical adults like you and I and all she did was a working memory test with them for 19 days in a row. 

If you do a working memory test, 19 days in a row you get better at it. It's like a concentration game only hers is much harder and much more boring. I tried to do it and I couldn't.

Working memory & intelligence

But not only did those adults who did the work, typical adults, in Bern, Switzerland, at the University of Bern. But when she tested what's called general intelligence, their ability to solve problems that they've never seen before, those who went through the working memory exercises as opposed to a controlled group who just did video games, showed a significant increase in their problem solving ability. 

You build working memory skills in every single Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant exercise because they demand working memory. 

To comprehend a sentence that you've read, to know the vocabulary word that you didn't know before and remember it, that requires working memory.

Reading comprehension requires working memory. It's been embedded by the neuroscientists in every single exercise in these programs.

Working memory & learning capacity   

When you’re exercising working memory, you are not just building memory, you are building problem solving capability. You are building the capacity to be a better learner, building learning capacity. It's really important to understand that.

working memoryWhat do working memory problems look like in the classroom? Well, often, the biggest sign is the student knows the material but gets terrible scores on tests because they keep rereading the question over and over again.

They will be very slow in multiple-choice tests, why? They read the question, they read (a), they read (b), oh, they forgot the question. They go back and read the question again, they read (a), they read (b), they read (c).

They are pretty sure it's (c) but they want to double check that they are right about the question. So they go back and read the question again. They read (a), they read (b), they read (c), they read (d), they go back and read (c) again, double check (b), click off (c).

That's a working memory problem. Where is the kid next to him who doesn't have a working memory problem? Four questions further. So any test where speed is an issue, working memory slows everybody down even though they know the material.

That's why when we look at secondary level students who do Fast ForWord, we can get sometimes four and five year gains on standardized reading tests. Why? Because they knew how to read, they couldn't take the test fast enough. We improve their working memory so that they could show you what they'd learned.

They will reread things a lot. They'll read the same thing over and over again. They'll have a lot of trouble with memorizing. They'll have a lot of problems with spelling the English language. Not Italian, not Spanish, English. Why? English spelling isn't regular. You have to memorize many, many of the words and how they are spelled.

And you know what, they are going to have a terrible problem with Chinese and Japanese. I can't imagine what that must be like to memorize all those ideographs.