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Is Working Memory the New IQ?

What is Working Memory?

Working memory is an area of memory that is a kind of mental workspace or sketchpad, with only a limited capacity. It’s that part of our memory which keeps information active for a short period of time. Whilst it’s active, it allows us to manipulate information mentally and guide our behaviour.

Every day we use working memory to remember plans or instructions about what to do next. It’s essential for many mental tasks such as our ability to control attention and to use information to help us solve problems, eg calculating the change from a purchase. We also use verbal working memory to understand long sentences and to process what we read.

More recently, it has also become clear that there is a strong link between working memory capacity and the ability to resist distractions and irrelevant information. One study using the so called “cocktail party effect”, which is our ability to focus on one voice despite noisy surroundings, showed that this ability is actually related to working memory capacity (Conway et al., 2001). Children use this capacity in everyday situations like the classroom, where they need to focus on the teacher’s voice in preference to the many distractions in a class of 20 or 30 children.

Recent studies have also shown that low working memory is related to being “off-task” and daydreaming (Kane et al., 2007). These psychological studies are consistent with neuro-imaging studies, which have shown that subjects with higher working memory capacity are less likely to store irrelevant information (Vogel et al., 2005), and are also better at filtering out distracters (McNab and Klingberg, 2008).

Susan Gathercole, a respected researcher in the field of education found that most children with low working memory scores obtained high teacher ratings of inattention and were judged by teachers to have short attention spans, high levels of distractibility, problems in monitoring the quality of their work, and difficulties in generating new solutions to problems (Gathercole, et al., 2008).

How is Working Memory Measured?

Working Memory can be measured in several ways – for example, by testing how many numbers a person can repeat back after hearing them once, sometimes in a different order (verbal working memory), or by testing recall of the positions an object holds hold after seeing them once (visual working memory). Most Language and IQ tests have an in-built measure of Working Memory, but there are also specific psychological assessment tools for its measurement.

What is a Deficit in Working Memory?

When people have deficits in working memory, they are often experienced as “inattention problems”, e.g. problems focusing on reading a text; or “memory problems”, e.g. forgetting what to do in the few seconds of walking from one room to another; or being easily distracted while trying to focus on a task. In children the problem is often remembering what to do next, which makes them unable to finish an activity according to plan. Mental arithmetic is often difficult and reading comprehension can be affected.

A deficit might be a true deficit eg a standard score below average, but it can also be a relative deficit, where there is a large gap between a bright child’s verbal or perceptual reasoning abilities, and a Working Memory Score in the average range.

How Can Working Memory be the new IQ?

IQ tests, ie tests of intellectual ability were first designed to help identify suitable class placements for children to better educate them. However many researchers are now arguing that Working Memory is “the new IQ”, because it is a better predictor of school achievement than are IQ tests.

This suggestion is increasingly gathering momentum, as the research evidence for the relationship between working memory and academic achievement accumulates. For example, a recent UK study found that:

“children’s working memory skills at 5 years of age were the best predictor of literacy and numeracy 6 years later. IQ, in contrast, accounted for a smaller portion of unique variance to these learning outcomes. The results demonstrate that working memory is not a proxy for IQ but rather represents a dissociable cognitive skill with unique links to academic attainment” (Alloway & Alloway, 2009).

Poor working memory skills have also been found to predict learning two years after assessment in children with learning difficulties, independent of their IQ (Alloway & Alloway, 2009). Thus, working memory scores at the start of formal education are more powerful predictors of later academic success than IQ .

Other studies have shown that 10-15% of children in a mainstream classroom will suffer from working memory impairments that will jeopardise their academic success. Common failures for children with working memory impairments include forgetting lengthy instructions, place-keeping errors (for example, missing out letters or words in a sentence), and failure to cope with storing and manipulating information (Alloway, Gathercole, Kirkwood, & Elliott, 2008); (Alloway & Gathercole, 2006).

More generally, working memory has been suggested to be the single most important factor in determining general intellectual ability (Süb et al., 2002). About 50% of the differences between individuals in non-verbal IQ scores can be explained by differences in working memory capacity (Conway et al., 2003). In fact, verbal working memory capacity actually predicts performance on reading comprehension in the scholastic aptitude test (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980).

Can Working Memory be Improved?

It had long been assumed that we were not able to change our working memory capacity, but research over the past several years has found that this is NOT the case. In breakthrough research, Torkel Klingberg, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute demonstrated that, in contrast to what was previously assumed, systematic training can improve working memory capacity in both children and adults.

Indeed, brain imaging studies show that working memory training leads to increased brain activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortex (McNab et al, 2009). Most importantly, improving working memory capacity leads to better performance on several tasks that require working memory and control of attention and this translates to increased attentiveness in everyday life. For children in the classroom, this translates into good news for improving reading comprehension and mathematical abilities (Dahlin, 2010; Holmes, 2009).

CogmedCogmed Working Memory Training Cogmed Working Memory Training is an evidence-based program for helping children, adolescents and adults sustainably improve attention by training their working memory.

Published research shows that people with working memory deficits (common in ADD/ADHD) who undergo Cogmed Working Memory Training improve their ability to concentrate and control their impulsive behaviour.

The program is based on strong scientific research and it is done in the convenience of your own home under the supervision of a qualified Cogmed Coach.

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Situations where Working Memory is being used

  • Remembering instructions and remembering what the next step is while working with a sequence of activities
  • Learning new things
  • Reading, understanding what you are reading and selecting information
  • Organizing your life, remembering what to bring along,
  • Remembering where and when meetings occur
  • Listening to other people and responding appropriately
  • Time planning and having a sense of time
  • Holding back your impulses.

Working Memory Guide


Working memory is crucial for…

Indicators that working memory needs exercise

Pre school


  •  Learning the alphabet
  •  Focusing on short instructions such as “Come and brush your teeth”
  •  Remaining seated to complete independent activities, such as puzzles
  •  Seems unwilling or unable to learn alphabet, numbers
  •  Can’t focus long enough to grasp and follow instructions
  •  Flits from one thing to another

Primary school


  •  Reading and understanding the content (reading comprehension)
  •  Mental arithmetic
  •  Interacting and responding appropriately in peer activities such as playing in the school grounds
  •  Reads (decodes) but does not understand or remember material read
  •  Problems memorizing math facts
  •  Difficulty participating in group activities (e.g. awaiting turn); makes friends but cannot keep them

High School

  •  Doing homework independently
  •  Planning and packing for an activity, such as dance class
  •  Solving multi-step maths problems, especially word problems
  •  Participating in team sports, such as soccer
  •  Does not begin or persist with homework without supervision
  •  Packs but forgets items essential for activity
  •  Reads the problem but can’t break it into understandable parts
  •  Problems grasping rules of game, functioning as a “team player”

Senior High School

  •  Getting a driver’s license
  •  Understanding social cues, responding to demands of a social situation
  •  Writing essays, reports
  •  Problems with spatial awareness, reading and following traffic cues
  •  Interrupts, talks excessively, doesn’t listen to others
  •  Essays and reports are short, sloppy, and disorganized



  •  Focusing and following a conversation
  •  Making and adhering to work plans, such as studying for an exam
  •  Participating in group activities in school
  •  Sustaining focus and interest throughout lectures
  •  Changes topics suddenly, makes irrelevant comments
  •  Procrastinates, then tries to “cram” the night before an exam
  •  Doesn’t listen or participate during group activities
  •  Falls asleep or “zones out” during lectures



  •  Getting to work on time
  •  Meeting deadlines at work
  •  Prioritizing multiple activities
  •  Handling conflicts within the family
  •  Frequently late to work
  •  Often underestimates time required for a task
  •  Has problems breaking a project into manageable steps
  •  Often loses temper with children and spouse



  •  For seniors that are working all the adult items are relevant
  •  Being able to perform what you are planning to do
  •  Organizing your materials and activities
  •  Managing important financial transactions
  •  Forgetfulness
  •  Distractibility
  •  Losing track of the topic in a conversation
  •  Mislaying things like glasses, mobile phone, keys etc

Reference List

Alloway, T.P. (2009). Working memory, but not IQ, predicts subsequent learning in children with learning difficulties. European Journal of Psychological Assessment. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 2009, 25.

Alloway, T.P & Alloway, R.G. (2009). Investigating the predictive roles of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 106, 20-29.

Conway ,R.A., Kane, M.J. & Engle, R.W. (2003) Working memory capacity and its relation to general intelligence. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 12.

Conway, A.R.A, Cowan, N. Bunting, M.F. (2001) The cocktail party phenomenon revisited: the importance of working memory capacity. Psychonomic Bull. Rev.  8, 331–335

Dahlin, K.I.E. (2010.) Effects of working memory training on reading in children with special needs Reading and Writing DOI 10.1007/s11145-010-9238-y.

Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19(4), 450-466.

Gathercole, S.E., Alloway, T.P., Kirkwood, H.J., Elliott, J.G., Holmes, J. & Hilton, K.A. (2008)  Attentional and executive function behaviours in children with poor working memory Learning and Individual Differences, 18, 2, 2008, 214-223.

Gathercole, S.E., Pickering, S.J., Knight, C., & Stegman, Z. (2004). Working memory skills and educational attainment: Evidence from National Curriculum assessments at 7 and 14 years of age. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18, 1-16.

Holmes, J., Gathercole, S.E. & Darren L. Dunning, D.L. (2009) Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children. Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00848.x

Jarvis, H.L., & Gathercole, S.E. (2003). Verbal and non-verbal working memory and achievements on National Curriculum tests at 11 and 14 years. Educational and Child Psychology, 20, 123-140.

Kane, M.J., Conway A.R.A, Miura, T.K. & Colflesh, G.J.H. (2007) Working Memory, Attention Control, and the N-Back Task: A Question of Construct Validity Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33, 3, 615–622.

Klingberg, T., Fernell, E., Olesen, P.J., Johnson, M., Gustafsson,P., Dahlstreom, K., Gilberg, C. G., Forssberg, H. & Westerberg, H. (2005). Computerized Training of Working Memory in Children With ADHD—A Randomized, Controlled Trial J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry, 44, 2.

McNab, F.,  Varrone, A., Farde,L,  Jucaite, A., Bystritsky,P., Forssberg,H. Klingberg, T. (2009) Changes in Cortical Dopamine D1 Receptor Binding Associated with Cognitive Training Science 323, 800.

SüB, H.M. et al. (2002) Working-memory capacity explains reasoning ability – and a little bit more. Intelligence 30, 261–288.

Vogel, E.K., McCollough, A.W. & Machizawa, M.G. (2005) Neural measures reveal individual differences in controlling access to working memory Nature 438, 500-503