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Working memory key predictor for a student's educational success, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology finds

Say these words aloud: desk, bug, jar, man, shell.

Now close your eyes and repeat them backward.

You just tested your verbal working memory: your ability to remember what you hear long enough to manipulate it for some purpose. Working memory spans only a few seconds - but for those seconds, you must train your attentional spotlight on the words you hear and block out everything else. This type of memory is distinct from short-term memory, which includes your ability to remember what you had for breakfast this morning, and long-term memory, which is your ability to remember things that you experienced days and weeks ago.

Any group of same-age children will vary greatly in their working memory capacity. Unlike IQ, it has nothing to do with how rich their early experiences are or how literate their household is - working memory is an innate ability that appears to be stable over time. The ability can be reliably measured in children as young as four.

New research in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests that working memory may be key in predicting which students do well in school. In fact, kids with the best working memories, rather than those with the highest IQs, seem to become the future high-achievers.

UK researchers Alloway and Alloway gave children a battery of tests at age five and again at age eleven. Kids who had the highest working memory scores at age five had the best academic attainment at age eleven. The five-year-olds with the highest IQs, on the other hand, did not necessarily excel in school as eleven-year-olds.

The researchers concluded that IQ and working memory are two separate skills and that, of the two, working memory is the better predictor of learning outcomes. The study suggests, "working memory is a relatively pure measure of a child's learning potential and indicates a child's capacity to learn." In other words, working memory is distinct from academics and IQ, which measure the totality of knowledge that a child has already managed to sponge up over time.

How does working memory have such a strong effect on classroom success? The researchers suggest that it acts as a sort of "bottleneck" to learning specific information and content in the classroom. 

Here's a typical example: say a teacher reads a story aloud to the class. Each student's task is then to write a paragraph on the "main point" of the story and what he or she learned from it. A student with a good working memory keeps the story's information fresh in her memory so that she can later decide which parts of the story are relevant in coming up with the main message. A student with a poor working memory, on the other hand, forgets key parts of the story and therefore misses their relevance to the overall point. When asked to write about it, she digresses and includes irrelevant details.

Does the research mean that children born with a poor working memory are destined to be C-students, no matter what?

Not necessarily, according to the researchers. They cite evidence that working memory capacity can be improved in the early years with targeted practice.

Alloway and Alloway say their study has implications for how to identify academically-at-risk students in the early elementary school years. They emphasize that, "the traditional reliance on IQ as a benchmark for academic success may be misguided. Instead, schools should focus on assessing working memory."

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