Improving Working Memory
This page covers the first (efficacy) trial of Improving Working Memory. The efficacy trial is aimed at testing whether it could work in schools under best possible conditions. To read about the second (effectiveness) trial of Improving Working Memory and Arithmetic - testing a scalable model under everyday conditions in a larger number of schools - click here.
This project tested two interventions: the Improving Working Memory intervention (WM) and an adapted version, named the Working Memory Plus intervention (WM+). Both aimed to improve the numeracy skills of Year 3 pupils (aged 7-8) who were behind the class average in numeracy by improving their working memory: the ability to remember and manipulate information over short time-frames. Exercises included asking pupils to repeat the things they needed to remember and assigning them to one of their fingers. The WM+ intervention also included some arithmetic content alongside the working memory elements. Both interventions were delivered by teaching assistants, who received one day of training and a handbook with detailed delivery instructions, in ten one-hour sessions over one term.
A small group intervention delivered by Teaching Assistants to improve working memory.
Behavioural Insights, NIESR
Staff deployment & development
The Improving Working Memory (WM) and Working Memory Plus intervention (WM+) both build on evidence from cognitive science which suggests that numeracy difficulties may be related to poor working memory capacity. The WM intervention combined training for pupils in strategies to improving working memory and time for them to practise these. The WM+ intervention covered the same material, but with less time spent on training and practising working memory strategies and more time instead on arithmetic.
The independent evaluation provides evidence that both the WM and WM+ interventions had positive impacts on maths outcomes, with children in the intervention schools making the equivalent of 3 additional months’ progress in maths. These results have a high security rating. Pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) in the schools implementing the WM intervention made a small amount of additional progress in maths compared to those in the control group of schools; no impact was found for FSM-eligible pupils in the WM+ schools. These results have a lower security due to the smaller numbers of pupils.
The programme does take up a significant amount of teaching assistants’ time and took them away from supporting classes. In some cases, schools needed to provide cover for the teaching assistant, which put additional demands on their resources. This is consistent with the evidence on the best use of Teaching Assistants, which shows larger impacts when they are used to deliver structured intervention than when deployed as general classroom support.
The EEF is exploring the possibility of testing the WM intervention at a larger scale.
Children in both the WM and WM+ schools made the equivalent of 3 additional months’ progress in maths, on average, compared to children in the business as usual control schools. These results have high security ratings.
Pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) in the WM schools made a small amount of additional progress in maths compared to those in the control schools and no impact was found for FSM children in the WM+ schools. These results are of lower security than the overall findings because of the smaller number of pupils.
The evaluation found positive impacts on working memory, and attention and behaviour in class for pupils receiving the interventions compared to children in comparison schools.
The intervention was found to be time intensive, predominantly due to the need for TAs to leave class to deliver sessions, which increased pressure on teachers during lessons and in some cases required schools to source TA cover.
Full project description
This project tested the Improving Working Memory intervention (WM) and an adapted version, entitled the Working Memory Plus intervention (WM+). Working memory is the ability to remember and manipulate information over short time-frames. Previous research has suggested that working memory is a reliable predictor of numeracy outcomes.
The Improving Working Memory intervention aimed to improve the numeracy skills of Year 3 pupils (aged 7-8) who were behind the class average in numeracy by improving their working memory capacity. The intervention, developed and previously tested by a team at Oxford University, combined the explicit teaching of working memory strategies by Teaching Assistants (TAs) and the independent practice of these strategies using web-based games. The intervention was delivered in ten one-hour sessions and lasted for one term. The Working Memory Plus intervention also had ten sessions, but only five were focused on working memory, whilst the other five were focused on arithmetic content.
The project was a randomised controlled trial (RCT). 127 schools participated, being randomised at the school-level to one of three arms – the Improving Working Memory intervention, the Working Memory Plus intervention, or a business as usual control group. The primary outcome was maths attainment and the project also looked at working memory, and attention and behaviour in class as secondary outcomes. The process evaluation included fieldwork with eight intervention schools (four from each intervention), and an online survey of treatment and control schools. The trial took place between September 2016 and July 2017.