Research School Network: Is working memory really the most important predictor of academic success? Allison Carvalho, Evidence Lead in Education, mulls over an edition of ​‘Trialled and Tested’, the EEF podcast


Is working memory really the most important predictor of academic success?

Allison Carvalho, Evidence Lead in Education, mulls over an edition of ​‘Trialled and Tested’, the EEF podcast

Allison Carvalho mulls over an edition of EEF podcast Trialled and Tested which features Dr Tracy Alloway, a leading academic who’s conducted extensive research into working memory, teaching and learning.

7, 5, 4, 2, 9, 0.

Of all the fundamental skills that young children must have in place, working memory is even more important explains Dr Tracy Alloway in a fascinating EEF podcast called Trialled and Tested.

Working memory is used when we remember and manipulate information for a little while. Dr Alloway has followed a group of kindergartners (aged about 5 to 6 in the UK) over time and found that the size of working memory was predictive of how well they’d do in reading, writing and maths six years later.

The beauty of working memory is that it’s unrelated to socio-economic background, or enrichment opportunities that are usually associated with IQ, explains Dr Alloway. When we look at working memory, we’re almost looking at a pure measure of learning potential”. Thankfully, it’s also flexible and may change.

I listened carefully.


Dr Alloway says if you have a good long term memory – or library – it can help your working memory, which she compares to a post-it-note. When we encounter new information, we can draw on our library to figure out part of it.


Children must tire of hearing me say, Use what you know to learn something new.” For example, if they know how to spell any’, they learn they’re part way to spelling (and reading) many, anyone, anywhere and anything.

If the post-it is small, notes Dr Alloway, it takes longer to accumulate the library of information.


Consequently, patience and resilience are vital in practitioners and learners. When children take time to read sight words, for example, it’s wise to expect them to forget.

This sounds negative, but isn’t. It respects differences. It evaporates frustrated thoughts such as, I’ve taught X to death, so they should remember X.” Says who? More work is necessary. Take a packed lunch for the journey. Take several.

Dr Alloway states that smaller working memory is associated with learning differences such as dyslexia.


The results of standardised tests in some diagnostic assessments bears this out. Not all dyslexic learners have limited working memory. Larger working memory can support the acquisition of sounds, for example, when other cognitive skills, such as phonological awareness, are relatively weak. However, working memory unpins phonological awareness. So …

… is working memory almost a pure measure of learning potential”?

What about motivation, which can’t be quantified?

What’s the potential academic success of an extremely reluctant learner with an average, or above average, working memory?

Conversely, could a forgetful, yet extremely motivated learner eventually become a high achiever’ if she has enough skilled, sensitive teachers who meet her need for extensive, chunked and varied overlearning?

Remember the digits at the beginning?

Recall them backwards. This is a classic test of working memory. Now imagine you’re a learner who can only recall three digits when everyone else effortlessly retrieves five or six. Every day.

What’s it like to forget something you’ve read, or heard, minutes ago, but feel too embarrassed to say so because your teacher has already repeated himself twice? Quickly. Using long sentences.

How motivated will you be? How much learning will make it to your post-it-note? Will your post-it-note grow as you navigate the education system? How will you catch up’? This maths-related EEF research may provide hope.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how well random sequences of numbers predict academic potential at 6.

Allison Carvalho is a Specialist Teacher and Dyslexia Assessor at Kaizen Primary School in Plaistow, east London.


Follow this link to hear the Trialled and Tested podcast.

The findings of an EEF trial entitled Improving Working Memory are available here.

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