Is Working Memory more important than IQ?


boy remembering

Yes, Yes, Yes, according to the leaders in working memory research! I just attended a conference where I had the privilege of hearing several of the world’s leading experts on working memory present their perspective on the link between Working Memory and ADHD (Dr.s Rapport, Tannock and Fassbender/Schweitzer), the state of Working Memory and increasing cognitive skills (Dr. Klingberg), and Working Memory in the classroom and an increase in academic scores (Dr. Gathercole).

Basically the new research points to this:

  • A child’s suc­cess in all aspects of learn­ing comes down to how good their work­ing mem­ory is regard­less of their IQ score. This means that having a good work­ing mem­ory at the start of for­mal edu­ca­tion is a more pow­er­ful pre­dic­tor of aca­d­e­mic suc­cess than knowing the child’s IQ score in the early years.
  • The studies also found that, as opposed to IQ, work­ing mem­ory is not linked to the par­ents’ level of edu­ca­tion or socio-economic back­ground. This means all chil­dren regard­less of back­ground or envi­ron­men­tal influ­ence can have the same oppor­tu­ni­ties to ful­fill poten­tial if work­ing mem­ory is assessed and prob­lems addressed where necessary.
  • As many as 10% of school age children may suffer from poor working memory, British researchers found, yet the problem remains rarely identified. “You can think of working memory as a pure measure of your child’s potential,” Dr. Tracey Alloway of Britain’s Durham University studies said of their results. “Some psychologists consider working memory to be the new IQ because we find that working memory is the single most important predictor of learning,” Alloway added.
  • Many children that had been thought to be lazy or underachievers really were found to have poor working memory ability.
  • Another finding was that with early identification and formalized memory training, these poor memory skills can improve and problems in ADHD, math, reading comprehension and overall learning speed also improved!What is working memory?

Working memory is described as “the ability to hold several facts or thoughts in short term memory while solving a problem or performing a task.” We use our working memory all day long without thinking about the process. People with working memory problems can’t “hang onto” the information long enough to do that.

For example, here is a working memory task.  An adult would listen to this sequence of numbers and letters, “4-B-1-D-5” and then repeat them by first putting the numbers in order from low to high and the letters in order at the end from A-Z. The answer is “1-4-5-B-D. After 12 to 15 trials of this, the mind starts to fatigue. You are in trouble because you can’t just guess at the answer to get it right; you actually have to be actively engaged with the material! Other working memory tasks might be that you are shown a series of 6-8 pictures, then the cards are shuffled and you need to put them back in the correct order or you hear words like, “cat-green-bowl-jump-boat” and then you are asked, “What was the second word? What is the fourth word?”

This “being engaged” with the material and mental fatigue is why new studies on ADHD point to working memory deficits as being one of the main causes of that disorder. Once the mind fatigues, the person stops listening or performing the task because it’s too hard. With less to attend to, the child becomes focused on other things that don’t require diligent brain work.

We know that besides having a huge impact on attention and focus, working memory deficits also impact:

  • Reading comprehension because it’s too hard to remember the characters in the story, the sequence of the plot and the order of the syntax.
  • Understanding spoken language because the listener needs to track the meaning in the speaker’s words long enough so that there is meaning and not just a bunch of little phrases being processed.
  • Writing because a person needs to recall perhaps one or two thoughts or main ideas as he is putting them on paper. To write a paragraph or a story, a person needs to remember the overall story, the order in which he needs to tell it and the characters, events, the rules of writing, the grammar, etc.  It’s too much to remember!
  • Problem solving because it requires that you cling to clues in your head while deducing or inferring from a small amount of information at hand.
  • Math because so much of arithmetic is a two or three step operation. Any part of a problem that should be rehearsed while doing the next step has a very good chance of being forgotten in a person with poor working memory skills. (Like in real life. If you have forty dollars and you’re shopping and you are keeping track of what you have spent so far, that’s working memory.

The question many researchers are struggling with is how to help people with this problem. In the past, children have been taught compensation techniques like rehearsing everything they hear and see in order to keep it active in the mind, but this isn’t very efficient and the carry-over to performance is slow or non-existent.

Dr. Mel Levine, co-founder of All Kinds of Minds, in Durham, North Carolina says, “In children with learning difficulties, working memory becomes a huge issue, especially around middle school where the demands on working memory grow dramatically.” Short term memory can become overloaded if everything circulating there is not moved on to long term memory areas. By making the working memory process more efficient or fluid, this frees up the ability to take in more information faster.

Recent research out of Sweden and other big universities in the United States demonstrated that children with ADHD, academic problems and adults with symptoms of stroke all greatly benefited from working memory practice from a program called CogMed. (

Poor working memory has been proven to influence a person’s ability to learn or to pay attention to a task for a longer period of time. Poor memory can come about because of Dyslexia, ADHD, a brain injury, people recovering from chemotherapy, or persons with generalized specific learning disorders. Whatever the cause, we now know that greater focus needs to be paid to the working memory ability of an individual instead of the person’s IQ or intellectual function.

Working memory is the new IQ.

 photo © Can Stock Photo Inc. / kennykiernan