Centre for Community Child Health

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Memory Maestros Study

  • Children go to school to learn – but for some children, learning can be challenging. This might be obvious by the time children are in grade one, or not show up till later.

    Memory Maestros studied working memory – the ability to hold and use information just long enough to do a task, like remembering a phone number until you dial it. Working memory varies between children, just like height and many other characteristics. Further information about working memory can be found here.

    Several studies suggest that improving working memory helps some children learn better. Some scientists think all children should be assessed for weak working memory. Then those with poorer working memory could be offered a program that might help them learn. However, no one yet knows if this approach works.

    Aims

    The Memory Maestros study asked two main questions:

    • How important is working memory for learning, and how stable is it over time?
    • Does a 5-week program of daily computerised games improve working memory, and does this actually help learning? 

    Method

    A pilot study was conducted in two schools from August to December 2010, assessing the feasibility of the methods that will be used in the main trial. The pilot study was funded by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.

    A large randomised controlled trial (RCT) was then carried out in 45 schools from February 2012 to June 2015. The RCT was funded by an NHMRC project grant.

    The RCT consisted of three stages:

    • Stage 1 (screening). All Grade 1 children at participating schools were offered a working memory assessment. Around 1700 Grade 1 children in 44 schools across Melbourne joined Stage 1 in 2012.
    • Stage 2 (intervention). Children with the poorest working memory skills (scores in the lowest 25% on the screening test) were invited into the new trial. They were randomly assigned into either the intervention or the 'usual care' group. A researcher visited each intervention child's school over a five week period to work with the intervention children (in groups of 2 to 4) using a computer-based program that aims to increase the child's working memory capacity. The intervention period was for around 30 minutes per day for up to 25 sessions.
    • Stage 3 (follow-up). Each child's academic achievement, working memory, IQ, and heath care costs was assessed. This occurred at 6, 12 and 24 months after the study commenced. Face-to-face assessments with the children as well as parent and teacher surveys were used in this stage.

    The intervention program

    The program used in the Memory Maestros study was called CogMed. This program has been previously used in small studies with healthy children and children with attention problems. CogMed is like a computer game – children usually have fun, because it doesn't feel like 'work'. The computer game has a fun 'robot' theme. The games involve items (such as numbers, letters and asteroids) lighting up on the screen in a sequence which the child is asked to repeat. The games automatically get harder as working memory gets better. This happens in very small steps. This means children are always working just at their limit, but can still do the tasks successfully.

    Findings and next steps

    Findings from the RCT showed that working memory training did not result in longer term benefits for children’s learning, working memory or behaviour outcomes. 

    Of all outcome measures tested, only visuospatial short term memory showed slight gains at 12 months, but no clear benefits were apparent after 24 months. In conclusion, the findings demonstrate a lack of evidence to justify the use of CogMed in classrooms for children identified as having low working memory.

    The Memory Maestros team now plans to link birth, school entry and later learning outcomes with genetic testing to help understand how genetic differences interact with cognitive and environmental factors to determine long-term learning and mental health related outcomes. 

    Key publications

    Academic Outcomes 2 Years After Working Memory Training for Children With Low Working Memory

    Schooling duration rather than chronological age predicts working memory between 6 and 7 years: Memory Maestros Study.

    Team

    Investigators

    Professor Melissa Wake Paediatrician and Group Leader, Community Health Services Research, MCRI
    Associate Professor Gehan Roberts  
    Developmental Paediatrician and Associate Director, CCCH
    Professor Peter Anderson Professor of Psychology, Monash University
    Professor Susan Gathercole   Cambridge University 
    Associate Professor Lisa Gold   
    Health Economist, Deakin University 
    Dr Fiona Mensah  Biostatistician, MCRI
    Dr Jon Quach 
    Research Fellow, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne
    Professor Field Rickards   Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne
    Professor John Ainley  
    Australian Council for Educational Research

    Research Assistants and Students 

    Research Assistants  Students
    Bibi Gerner
    Miree Cho 
    Jane Sheehan Guilia Teti
    Lisa Belford   Jun Lim 
    Elissa York Jared Talavera
    Libby Smith  Brittany Taylor 
    Sonia Khano
    Ngoc Nguyen 
    Jess Matov Emma Schubert
    Rebecca Nadalin
    Lucy Rogers
    Elizabeth Nicolaou Chelsea Delbridge
    Liz Varley  Katherine Landy
    Saga Arthurrson Elizabeth Nicolaou
    Kate Paton Justine Bale 
    Ashlee Smith Stephanie Brown
    Pooja Patel  


 

Murdoch Childrens Research Institute

The Centre for Community Child Health is a department of The Royal Children’s Hospital and a research group of Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.