For a long time, psychologists thought that we were stuck with our working memory size and couldn’t change it. However, exciting cutting-edge research suggests that we can train our brain and improve working memory. In response to this, there has been a surge of brain training products in the last five to ten years and some of these have found their way into schools. Based on research, here are three key things to look for when evaluating the programs and the research behind them.
1. Transfer effects. This refers to whether the program improves anything other than getting better at the game itself. Practicing one thing will naturally make you better at it. This is known as a “practice effect”. But can the benefits of a brain training program transfer to real world activities; in other words, can you get better at something other than the training game?
2. Control Group. A control group offers a comparison to make sure that the training program is not just working because the student is doing something different. Some studies just use a control group who don’t do anything. While this is a good start, an ideal control group is a group of people who are doing something different from the training program (such as reading or playing a different computer game). Look for research findings that include an active control group to compare with the training group. A control group offers a comparison to make sure that the brain training program is not just working because the child is doing something different. Some studies just use a control group who don’t do anything. While this is a good start, an ideal control group is a group of people who are doing something different from the brain training program (such as reading or playing a different computer game).
3. Maintenance. How long do the results last? It is important to consider whether the training benefits will last beyond the training period. Not all research studies include a follow-up from the training program so you may not know whether the benefits of the training program last more than a day or a week.
In my own research, I looked at the transfer effects of working memory training—can training a child’s brain lead to better scores in learning? Students with learning difficulties were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Half of the students trained with Jungle Memory (Training group), while the other half received extra tutoring (Control group).
BEFORE TRAINING: I measured their working memory, IQ, and academic attainment at the beginning of the study. The students in both groups performed on a similar level in these cognitive tests. This is important because it means that any improvements the student makes is the result of the training and not because they started at different levels.
AFTER TRAINING: The results were dramatic. The Control group did not perform any better. In contrast, the Training group using Jungle Memory made great improvements in IQ, working memory, and most importantly, their learning. The increase in their grades was the equivalent of a C to a B, and a B to an A in just 8 weeks!
I also worked with Dyslexia Scotland to find out whether Jungle Memory could improve school performance in students with reading difficulties.
Students were allocated into one of three groups: Nonactive Control, Active Control, where they trained once a week; Training Group, where they trained 4x a week.
BEFORE TRAINING: All three groups were given tests of working memory, IQ, and language.
AFTER TRAINING: Students who trained regularly with Jungle Memory improved their working memory scores by five times more than those who only trained once a week
MAINTENANCE: The most exciting thing is that all these improvements were maintained 8 months after completing the training.