Keeping up to date: evaluating the Working Memory model

AQA A: Models of memory

Students studying AQA Spec A are required to learn about the Working Memory model (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974). A positive evaluative point often included in textbooks, although not used particularly effectively by students, is that the theory has applications for the improvement of some cognitive disorders and for boosting academic performance.

Working Memory

Working memory has been argued to be the basis for general intelligence and reasoning. The argument being that if you are able to hold and mentally manipulate more items, you are likely to be able to tackle more complex problems and arrive at more complex solutions to these problems. It follows, therefore, that understanding the components of this memory system and the interaction of these components might allow us to improve our Working Memory and reap the intellectual benefits this improvement brings.

The applications of this theory are even broader than this, however, as it has been suggested that some cognitive disorders (such as ADHD, argued to be due to deficits in WM) could be improved by using Working Memory training programmes. For obvious reasons a non-medical “treatment”, for disorders such as ADHD, would be regarded as something of a breakthrough.

The issue is, however, whether Working Memory is something that is fixed or can be trained and improved. There’s a comprehensive article on the American Psychological Association website (“A workout for working memory”, September 2005) which discusses studies which have found improvements in samples with ADHD, for example, when given Working Memory training and the criticisms directed at these studies (motivation effects and basic practice effects).

New research: Applications of Working Memory

A Tweet by the BPS Research Digest brought to my attention a piece of new research which seems to further muddy the waters. The article, published on the APA website, “Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Meta-Analytic Review, (Melby-Lervåg; Hulme; Developmental Psychology, May 21, 2012) indicated that the effects of Working Memory training programmes were only short term and were limited to the specific training tasks in the samples they studied.

In the classroom

Although there is no requirement in the spec to delve deeply into this particular aspect of the Working Memory model in any depth, I think there are a few ways this update could be used to stretch students or illustrate fundamental issues within Psychology as a science, here are 4 ideas:

  • Ask more able students to discuss the implications of this research and briefly weigh up just how much of a problem it represents for the model and the previous research in this area.
  • Use the research to show students, early on in their A Level studies, the need for on-going research and reflective thinking within science. This is particularly useful when students start the course, in my experience, holding the view that science = fact (How Science Works – appreciate the “tentative nature” of research findings).
  • Ask more able students to try to work this new development into an extended answer where they are required to evaluate the Working Memory model. This would be particularly helpful for preparing students to be able to offer counter criticisms to develop and extend an argument, rather than undermine a point made; a much needed skill for high level A2 writing!
  • Ask students to imagine they have been asked to replicate the new study to assess whether this is a reliable finding as it contradicts previous research. Ask them to consider what they would need to ask the researchers (as only the abstract is available to view online) in order to do so – bearing in mind this was a meta-analysis.
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