Assessment of working memory

The theories of working memory described above provide the foundations and theoretical underpinnings for the design of empirical (i.e., experimental) working memory tasks. Empirical working memory tasks attempt to delineate how humans use the basic functions of working memory to solve problems and adapt to their environments. In addition, such empirical findings provide data that support, refute, or otherwise shape the original theories. Such is the typical evolution of knowledge (Kuhn, 1962); each step shapes the previous step allowing for theory modification and evolution.

With regard to working memory, experimental findings have allowed for further construct development and the differentiation of working memory from shortterm memory and verbal working memory from visual-spatial working memory. As empirical support is established for theoretical and empirical working memory task validity, working memory tasks are further developed for educational practice, most notably to predict or establish linkages between working memory and academic achievement such as general reasoning ability (e.g., Kyllonen & Christal, 1990), reading comprehension (e.g., Coltheart, 1987), arithmetic problem solving (e.g., Logie, Gilhooly, & Wynn, 1994), vocabulary acquisition (e.g., Gathercole & Baddeley, 1993), and learning disabilities (e.g., Reid, Hresko, & Swanson, 1996) (all as cited in Roid, 2003, p. 43). The previous section provided a history of the theoretical underpinnings of empirical working memory tasks. In this section, we explore the empirical tasks themselves, as well as the educationally relevant assessments that have evolved from them and are currently used in educational settings. In doing so, we wish to emphasize the breadth and depths of empirical working memory tasks, and thus their potential contributions to educational applications. However, we also underscore the chasm that actually exists between empirical and educational assessment practices, and therefore, the specific educational conclusions that can be drawn regarding the interpretation of educational working memory tasks.

In empirical assessment of working memory, respondents are typically required to combine memory for a sequence of items while simultaneously processing other information.This activity is increased over successive trials until criteria errors are committed (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008). Conventionally, many of the empirical assessments of working memory have been referred to as “span tasks”, including reading span, digit span, listening span, computation span, counting span, and other types of visual-spatial spans.

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