Working Memory, Success and Education

In a recent article published in New York Times (“Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters”) David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz discuss a research study directed by David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow from Vanderbilt University which demonstrates that people who have higher level of working memory capacity have a distinct competitive advantage in their careers. The correlation between significant successful career and the size of the working memory is extremely high, too high not to be meaningful.

So, if you happen to be lucky enough to have been bestowed by Mother Nature with a large working memory capacity you will have it easy in life. You still need to work hard, but you are likely very successful and not struggling. And what happens if you are not that lucky? You will have to work harder, the conventional wisdom says.

The problem is there are no accessible methods that we can use to assess the working memory. There are no benchmarks. You could find books and magazines and web sites with official assessment kits and quizzes to measure your IQ, but not the level of your working memory.

Let’s assume you know the capacity of your working memory. What could you do about it? I think you could do a few things to improve the odds of success because this attribute is only one condition in your pathway to greater achievements and its influence depends on other factors. Intelligence, good character, capacity for sustained effort and motivation, to name a few other attributes, are all critical elements to success. It is not necessary that all of them are strong, but it all depends how good your strategy is in using them in a smart way. For instance if the level of your working memory is lower, this has an impact on your multitasking abilities and your capacity to handle big chunks of complex information. You could compensate that by controlling your pace. With a slower pace, you could patiently use your strong cognitive skills to process the same complex information, but it just takes a bit longer. If on top of this you use smart cognitive tools then in the long-term you could achieve the same performance levels.

If you perfect your mental frames and have a clear understanding of fundamental cognitive structures, you could accelerate your learning with practice. This was one of the most remarkable observations discovered at the Kahn Academy when processing data with the online analytical tools: students who normally would fall behind in a standard classroom environment, if they take their time to master the study units, they eventually pick up the pace once they successfully consolidated their understanding of the fundamental cognitive structures discussed in the respective study units regardless of how long it takes to do that.

This is a big promise of the education in the future. Our advances in understanding how these metacognitive skills (thinking strategies) could be used to adapt the approach to learning and problem solving to our personal profile with better chances at getting closer to what we are really capable of. Unfortunately, education in its current industrial format just focuses on a simplistic manifestation of our abilities as they are limited to a few skills that rely heavily on the use of working memory. This is mostly obvious in numerical computation and verbal abilities. The traditional literacy and numeracy subjects are the core of the learning and teaching activities targeting systematic knowledge acquisition without achieving mastery of thinking skills. This is reflected in the structure of the formal of assessment programs. Education doesn’t emphasize very much the importance of thinking strategies, which would give young students a valuable life toolset. If we teach the students how to become better at organising their thinking, they will achieve more in their lives, and in the end they will be much happier people because they have a better chance to personal fulfilment.


  1. ThoughtKast

    Hi Alison,

    thank you for your comment. I had a look at Cogmed and it looks interesting. The way it is structured tends to be more aimed at children (and adults) with disabilities and it requires the trainee to visit a specialist, which makes the whole process a bit inhibiting.
    I would love to learn more about this. Please send me published research studies,
    Many thanks!

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