B4133 - Examining the relationship between working memory and other key outcomes - 13/09/2022

B number: 
Principal applicant name: 
Amy Atkinson | Lancaster University
Professor John Towse
Title of project: 
Examining the relationship between working memory and other key outcomes
Proposal summary: 

Working memory refers to an individual’s ability to store and process a limited amount of information for a brief period of time. It is considered crucial to many everyday activities, including reading, mental arithmetic and following instructions. In recent years, there has been a focus on examining how working memory operates in classroom settings. This research has revealed that working memory is an important predictor of academic achievement. For instance, Alloway and Alloway (2011) found that working memory at 5 years of age predicted educational attainment in key subject areas 6 years later. These studies have also identified that children with poor working memory often exhibit inattention, but rarely show high levels of hyperactivity (e.g. Alloway et al.., 2009). This research has developed our understanding of working memory and its importance during childhood and adolescence. However, there are three key limitations with existing research:
1) Few studies have examined classroom behaviours associated with poor working memory – Although working memory has been linked to the broad construct “inattention”, very little research has examined individual classroom behaviours in children with poor working memory (Gathercole et al., 2008). To date, only relatively small-scale study has examined this. However, within this study, the behaviours observed were not compared to a typically developing sample with typical working memory. Moreover, although approximately 1/3 of the sample received special educational needs (SEN) support, this was not controlled for when conducting the analysis. As such, further large-scale research is needed to identify the classroom behaviours that are associated with poor working memory. There is also very little understanding of the behaviours that adults with poor working memory are likely to show.
2) Little research has examined the outcomes associated with poor working memory – Existing research has revealed important relationships between working memory and academic achievement. However, these studies have tended to either assess working memory and academic achievement concurrently, or follow children for only a few years. To date, only one study has examined the relationship between working memory in childhood and academic achievement in adolescence (Evans et al., 2020). This study (which used ALSPAC data) found that working memory in childhood predicted maths attainment at Key Stage 2 and progress during secondary school. Although this study does advance our understanding of the relationship between working memory and academic achievement, it is not possible to conclude from this study whether working memory predicts GCSE outcomes per se. Furthermore, this study did not examine whether working memory predicts GCSE outcomes overall (e.g. whether or not the individual achieves 5 A*-C at GCSE Level including English and maths) or performance in other subjects (e.g. English, Science). As such, further research is needed to examine the relationships between working memory during childhood predicts academic achievement during adolescence. Finally, whilst previous research in adults has revealed important associations between working memory and other cognitive constructs (e.g. intelligence; Conway et al., 2003), it is unclear whether working memory in either childhood or adulthood is predictive of employment outcomes.
3) Little understanding of how individuals with poor working memory can be identified –It is not currently recommended that all adults or children undergo routine screening of working memory. Instead, individuals who are suspected of having difficulties may be referred for working memory assessments. However, a critical issue with this approach is that difficulties associated with poor working memory (e.g. behaviours associated with inattention) are rarely attributed to working memory (Gathercole et al., 2006). As such, more objective methods for identifying individuals who may benefit from working memory assessments would be useful. One method for identifying such individuals may be through use of routine data that schools and workplaces/adults already have access to (e.g. prior academic achievement). However, the extent to which routine data can be used to identify individuals at high risk of having poor working memory is currently unknown.

The planned project will address these questions by examining:
• Which individual inattentive and hyperactive behaviours are associated with poor working memory in adults and children
• Whether working memory during childhood predicts academic outcomes in childhood and adolescence
• Whether working memory measured childhood and adulthood predicts employment outcomes in adulthood
• Whether inattentive and hyperactive behaviours drive the effect of working memory on academic and employment outcomes
• whether routinely collected data (e.g. prior academic achievement and special educational needs status) can be used to identify adults and children at high risk of having poor working memory.

Impact of research: 
This work will have provide novel insights extent to the associations between working memory, inattentive/hyperactive behaviours and real world outcomes. The research may also have important practical implications, indicating which behaviours educational professionals and managers should monitor for, as well as identifying possible concurrent and longitudinal outcomes of poor working memory. Furthermore, the research will indicate whether routinely collected data can be used to identify children with poor working memory. We have built a series of dissemination activities into our grant proposal, including workshops for stakeholders, development of a training course, development of infographics, and presentations at non-academic conferences (e.g. ResearchEd).
Date proposal received: 
Tuesday, 23 August, 2022
Date proposal approved: 
Thursday, 25 August, 2022
Social Science, Cognitive impairment, Learning difficulty, Statistical methods, Cognition - cognitive function, Development, Intelligence - memory, Social science, Statistical methods