Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

All my blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0

The working memory training programs have been shown to improve working memory on trained tasks, and to a lesser extent on tasks similar to those taught, but the benefits have not been demonstrated to generalise to academic learning, or to be maintained over long periods. Even positive results have been inconsistent within and across studies. Unfortunately, the quality of research to date has been generally low, and the few studies with positive findings have been criticized on a number of methodological grounds, including measurement instrument difficulties, a lack of control groups (especially active controls), small sample sizes, and insufficient studies employing random assignment. There is also a concern that the proposed mechanism for producing improvement has not been clearly demonstrated to be the cause of any assessed improvement. Alternative explanations could include placebo effect through motivational change because of the increased interest and attention to the participant’s performance. To provide ineffective interventions has serious negative implications for struggling students. Even if an intervention is benign, there is an opportunity cost for students (and often a financial cost to parents), and a residue of negative emotion for both parents and child if an approach has no discernible effect. However, there is a significant amount of continuing research, some of it focused upon specific groups, such as those with ADHD, learning disabilities, cochlear implants, those born preterm, and those with brain injury or dementia. Not enough supportive research on this type of intervention currently meets the scientific standards that would justify claims of effectiveness. More definitive conclusions may be reachable in future if study quality and quantity improves.


“Based on this examination, we find extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance. We also find that many of the published intervention studies had major shortcomings in design or analysis that preclude definitive conclusions about the efficacy of training, and that none of the cited studies conformed to all of the best practices we identify as essential to drawing clear conclusions about the benefits of brain training for everyday activities. We conclude with detailed recommendations for scientists, funding agencies, and policymakers that, if adopted, would lead to better evidence regarding the efficacy of brain-training interventions.” (p. 103)

“ … we know of no evidence for broadbased improvement in cognition, academic achievement, professional performance, and/or social competencies that derives from decontextualized practice of cognitive skills devoid of domain-specific content. Rather, the development of such capacities appears to require sustained investment in relatively complex environments that afford opportunities for consistent practice and engagement with domain-related challenges (Ericsson, 2006; Ericsson & Charness, 1994; Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995; Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993; Grossmann et al., 2012; Rohwedder & Willis, 2010; Schooler & Mulatu, 2001; Schooler, Mulatu, & Oates, 1999, 2004; Shimamura, Berry, Mangels, Rusting, & Jurica, 1995; Simonton, 1988, 1990, 2000; Staudinger, 1996; Staudinger & Baltes, 1996; Staudinger, Smith, & Baltes, 1992; Stern, 2009), a factor that brain training programs largely ignore. The development of these capacities often also relies on reasoning, judgment, and decision-making, and generalization of even the simplest forms of reasoning to new situations requires multiple exposures to the content and practice in those new contexts (Gick & Holyoak, 1980, 1983; Wertheimer, 1945/1959). Thus, the gap between the skills trained by brain-training software and their target applications is often large. … learning and transfer are themselves acquired skills (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). Interestingly, the conditions that maximize efficient learning often contrast with those that lead to durability and broader application of that learning. Relatively consistent practice, immediate testing, and frequent and consistent feedback all can speed initial learning but impair retention and transfer relative to learning under more varied conditions with delayed testing at variable intervals (Schmidt & Bjork, 1992). Practiced routines can become exceptionally efficient, but that efficiency can come at the cost of generality. In contrast, effortful strategies that involve self-explanation and self-generated retrieval of learned material, especially with spacing, can enhance the durability of memory and learning (Dunlosky et al., 2013).” (p.112)

Simons, D.J., Boot, W.R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S.E., Chabris, C.F., Hambrick, D.Z., & Stine-Morrow, E.A.L. (2016). Do “brain-training” programs work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103–186. Retrieved from https://www.cogsci.northwestern.edu/events/2016-2017-events/simonsEtAl_2016-BrainTraining.pdf

“The efficacy of n-back training for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was tested in a randomized controlled trial. Method: 41 children aged 7 to 14 years with ADHD were trained on an n-back task, and their performance was compared with that of an active control group (n = 39) who were trained on a general knowledge and vocabulary task. Results: The experimental group demonstrated transfer of training to a nontrained n-back task as well as to a measure of inhibitory control. These effects were correlated with the magnitude of training gains. Conclusion: Our results suggest that n-back training may be useful in addressing some of the cognitive and behavioral issues associated with ADHD.” (p.1)

Jones, M.R., Katz, B., Buschkuehl, B., Jaeggi, S.M., & Shah, P. (2018). Exploring n-back cognitive training for children With ADHD Journal of Attention Disorders. First Published June 7, 2018

“This study evaluates the validity of claims that Working Memory (WM) training is an effective and legitimate school-based maths intervention. By analysing the current developments in WM in the fields of neurology and cognitive psychology, this study seeks to analyse their relevance to the classroom. This study analyses memory profiles of children and maths performance previous to, and after a 3 week school-based, teacher led, intervention programme. Results indicate that although WM improved, it also improved for the control group, who did not undergo training. No significant far-transfer to maths results were demonstrated during the study.” (p.174)

Cunningham, J., & Sood, K. (2018). How effective are working memory training interventions at improving maths in schools: A study into the efficacy of working memory training in children aged 9 and 10 in a junior school? Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 46(2), 174-187.

“The prospects of a relatively cheap, easy-to-administer intervention to boost cognition is highly attractive in terms of clinical and nonclinical applications, but also as a way to experimentally manipulate WM capacity. But does process-based WM training really fundamentally enhance cognition? Our previous work yielded some evidence in favor (von Bastian & Oberauer, 2013; Zimmermann et al., 2016), but also against this proposition (von Bastian & Eschen, 2016; von Bastian et al., 2013) – a state of research that is closely mirrored by the mixed evidence from current meta-analyses (e.g., Au et al., 2015; Melby-Lervåg et al., 2016). However, as many studies featured only small sample sizes (including our own), the evidence was rather weak in either direction (cf. von Bastian et al., 2018). To shed further light on whether and under which circumstances WM training is effective, we set out to systematically examine the underlying mechanisms of WM transfer and the role of individual differences (cf. von Bastian & Oberauer, 2014) with larger-scale samples (see also Guye et al., 2017; Guye & von Bastian, 2017). Now, the results of that endeavor – that is, the consistent absence of the hypothesized effects across our studies, backed up by relatively strong Bayesian evidence – leave us to conclude that WM training interventions, as they are currently administered, are no quick-fix to enhance cognition.” (p.34-35)

De Simoni, C., & von Bastian, C. C. (2018). Working memory updating and binding training: Bayesian evidence supporting the absence of transfer. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(6), 829-858. Pre-print

“The majority of targeted studies found performance improvements on the specific WM updating task that was used during training. Moreover, these training improvements generally transferred to WM tasks closely related to the trained task(s), also known as nearest- or near-transfer effects (Melby-Lervåg & Hulme, 2013; Minear et al., 2016 ). However, research directed at the question of whether or not these training benefits transfer to tasks measuring different, non-trained cognitive functions and to everyday life functioning, also termed far-transfer effects, has revealed mixed results. Based on a review of the literature, some authors provide a positive answer (e.g., Au et al., 2015); whereas, others argue that there is no convincing supporting evidence (e.g., Melby-Lervåg, Redick, & Hulme, 2016). Moreover, studies that claim to have found positive evidence for far-transfer effects and reviews that cite them have been criticized for containing a variety of methodological flaws. These include the inclusion of no or inappropriate control groups, the use of single tasks rather than multiple tasks to assess specific cognitive domains, and failing to convincingly demonstrate that the far-transfer benefits (and near-transfer benefits too, for that matter) are due to enhanced WM updating ability rather than to the learning of some non-WM related strategy, or enhancement of some basic process, such as overall processing speed or familiarity with the set of used stimuli (e.g., Melby-Lervåg & Hulme, 2016; Morrison & Chein, 2011; Shipstead, Hicks, & Engle, 2012).” (p.398)

“The present two studies revealed that WM updating training resulted in a larger training gain for individuals with a high compared to a low achievement motivation. Study 2 revealed that the differential training benefit was not associated with enhanced transfer effects for the high compared to the low achievement motivation participants. Both achievement motivation groups displayed enhanced performance on the post- relative to the pre-training tasks assessing WM but not on tasks measuring other aspects of executive functioning or fluid intelligence. (p.404)

Zhao, X., Xu, Y., Fu, J., & Maes, J. H. R (2018). Are training and transfer effects of working memory updating training modulated by achievement motivation? Memory & Cognition, 46, 398–409.

“The basic idea behind cognitive-training programs is that it is possible to enhance domain general cognitive skills by engaging in cognitively demanding activities (Taatgen, 2016). Such activities are supposed to induce functional and anatomical changes in the brain, which, in turn, would result in boosted cognitive functioning (Karbach & Schubert, 2013). Consequently, people would benefit from cognitive-training regimens for their academic, professional, and daily life at large. However, despite numerous attempts, no convincing evidence of the effectiveness of cognitive-training programs has been produced so far. In recent years, several systematic and metaanalytic reviews have concluded that the claims of cognitive-training researchers are not substantiated empirically. For example, Simons et al. (2016) have documented that there is no convincing evidence in favor of the presumed benefits of brain-training programs. The key point of Simons and colleagues’ review is that the observed effects are inversely related to the design quality of the experiment. Limitations such as the exclusive use of passive control groups, small samples, cognitive tests that are very similar to the trained tasks, between-group differences at baseline, and selectivity in reporting the results often contribute to artificially inflating the observed effect of the treatment (see also Melby-Lervåg, Redick, & Hulme, 2016; Sala & Gobet, 2016; 2017a; Sala, Tatlidil, & Gobet, 2017).”

Sala, G., Aksayli, N. D., Semir, K., Gondo, Y., & Gobet, F. (2018, August 1). Working memory training does not enhance older adults’ cognitive skills: A meta-analysis. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/5frzb Preprint

“The purpose of this meta-analysis was to evaluate the impact of WM training on TD children’s cognitive and academic skills. The results showed a clear pattern. Similar to previous meta-analyses (e.g., Melby-Lervåg & Hulme, 2013; Schwaighofer et al., 2015), WM training significantly affected WM-related skills (posttest overall effect size, g = 0.46, p< .001) and remained several months after the end of training (follow-up overall effect size, g = 0.33, p = .049). However, we found little or no evidence that WM training enhances fluid intelligence or domain-general processes such as cognitive control. The same applied to academic abilities such as literacy or science. Only the mathematics-related overall effect size was significant, albeit quite modest (g = 0.20, p= 0.18). However, methodological issues cast some doubts on the authenticity of the effect (we will take up this point below). Thus, the results of the meta-analysis do not support the hypothesis according to which WM training benefits cognitive or academic abilities in TD children. Interestingly, WM training seems to produce approximately the same negligible effects on measures outside the domain of WM regardless of the age of participants and domain. The significant (or marginally significant) moderators in the far-transfer main model (k = 74) were the random allocation of the participants to the samples, the type of control group, and duration of training. The overall effect size was much smaller in randomized samples (g = 0.07, p = .046) than in nonrandomized samples (g = 0.27, p < .001). This outcome suggests that episodes of self-selection in the experimental groups or differences at baseline level between experimental and control groups may have inflated the effect sizes in samples with no random allocation.9 Analogously, the overall effect size was smaller when the experimental group was compared to an active control group (g = 0.05, p = .311) than a passive control group (g = 0.18, p < .001). This finding corroborates the idea that the positive effect sizes reported in some primary studies are due to placebos as well. Moreover, when only the effect sizes in randomized samples with active control groups were considered, the overall effect size was almost null (g = 0.03, p = .521).” (p. 679-680)

“ … the most obvious practical implication of our results is that WM training, at the moment, cannot be recommended as an educational tool. WM training seems to have little or no effect on far-transfer measures of cognitive abilities and academic achievement. More generally, this meta-analysis provides further evidence that the occurrence of far-transfer is too infrequent to offer solid educational advantages. For this reason, cognitive and academic enhancement interventions the most obvious practical implication of our results is that WM training, at the moment, cannot be recommended as an educational tool. WM training seems to have little or no effect on far-transfer measures of cognitive abilities and academic achievement. More generally, this meta-analysis provides further evidence that the occurrence of far-transfer is too infrequent to offer solid educational advantages. For this reason, cognitive and academic enhancement interventions should be as close as possible to the skills that are meant to be trained.” (p. 683)

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). Working memory training in typically developing children: A meta-analysis of the available evidence. Developmental Psychology, 53(4), 671-685.

“Cogmed Working Memory Training (CWMT) has received considerable attention as a promising intervention for the treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children. At the same time, methodological weaknesses in previous clinical trials call into question reported efficacy of CWMT. In particular, lack of equivalence in key aspects of CWMT (i.e., contingent reinforcement, time-on-task with computer training, parent–child interactions, supportive coaching) between CWMT and placebo versions of CWMT used in previous trials may account for the beneficial outcomes favoring CWMT.”

Chacko, A., Bedard, A.C., Marks, D.J., Feirsen, N., Uderman, J.Z., Chimiklis, A., Rajwan, E., Cornwell, M., Anderson, L., Zwilling, A. & Ramon, M. (2013), A randomized clinical trial of Cogmed Working Memory Training in school-age children with ADHD: A replication in a diverse sample using a control condition. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

“Cognitive training is currently one of the most studied and controversial topics in the behavioral sciences. As in many other areas of the social and behavioral sciences, the initial promising findings have been challenged by more recent replications. The broad meta-analytic investigation reported in this paper (n = 1556, k = 332, N = 21,968) has evaluated, via first-order meta-analysis, the impact of a variety of cognitive-training programs on different populations’ cognitive and academic skills. Critically, second-order meta-analyses were carried out to assess whether the differences across first-order meta-analytic means were due to true variance or secondorder sampling error. The results are highly consistent: near transfer frequently occurs and, interestingly, seems to be moderated by the type of population; by contrast, far transfer is very modest at best. Moreover, once publication bias and placebo effects are ruled out, far-transfer effects are null regardless of the type of far-transfer measure, type of cognitive training program, and population.” (p.49)

“Beyond first- and second-order meta-analytic evidence on cognitive training, the observed lack of generalized cognitive benefits is consistent with a well-established corpus of findings in other disciplines. For example, although education is positively associated with scores on cognitive tests, its impact on general intelligence or domain-general cognitive skills appears to be modest (Detterman, 2016; Finn et al., 2014; Mosing, Madison, Pedersen, & Ullén, 2016; Ritchie et al., 2015), yet relatively consistent (Ritchie & Tucker-Drob, 2018). If even years of mentally challenging activities in school exert only a small effect on people’s overall cognitive ability, it is hard to see how a few weeks of cognitive training can lead to more appreciable benefits. Also, as seen earlier, research into learning and the psychology of expertise has repeatedly shown that far transfer is rare because skill acquisition relies on domain-specific perceptual and conceptual information (Ericsson & Charness, 1994; Gobet, 2016). Furthermore, other non-cognitive-trainingbased interventions too have failed to induce appreciable generalized effects (e.g., Berggren, Nilsson, Brehmer, Schmiedek, & Lövdén, 2018; Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, & Macnamara, 2018). Put together, the convergent insights from different fields of scientific research about far transfer represent a successful example of triangulation (Campbell & Fiske, 1959; Munafò & Smith, 2018), and lead us towards the conclusion that while human cognition is malleable to training, the benefits are, to a large extent, domain-specific.

The implications are profound. From the theoretical point of view, those theories of human cognition predicting minimal or no far transfer of skills are corroborated by our findings (e.g., chunking-based theories; for a review, see Gobet, 2016). Conversely, those theories predicting the generalization of skills acquired by training across multiple domains are refuted (e.g., Bavelier, Green, Pouget, & Schrater, 2012; Jaeggi et al., 2008; Tierney, Krizman, & Kraus, 2015). Regarding practical implications, the obvious conclusion is that, to date, professional and educational curricula should focus on domain-specific knowledge rather than general and allegedly transferable skills.” (p.50)

Sala, G., Aksayli, N.D., Tatlidil, K.D., Tatsumi, T., Gondo, Y., & Gobet, F. (2018). Near and far transfer in cognitive training: A second-order meta-analysis. PsyArXiv. Preprint

“It has been claimed that working memory training programs produce diverse beneficial effects. This article presents a meta-analysis of working memory training studies (with a pretest-posttest design and a control group) that have examined transfer to other measures (nonverbal ability, verbal ability, word decoding, reading comprehension, or arithmetic; 87 publications with 145 experimental comparisons). Immediately following training there were reliable improvements on measures of intermediate transfer (verbal and visuospatial working memory). For measures of far transfer (nonverbal ability, verbal ability, word decoding, reading comprehension, arithmetic) there was no convincing evidence of any reliable improvements when working memory training was compared with a treated control condition. Furthermore, mediation analyses indicated that across studies, the degree of improvement on working memory measures was not related to the magnitude of far-transfer effects found. Finally, analysis of publication bias shows that there is no evidential value from the studies of working memory training using treated controls. The authors conclude that working memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize to measures of “real-world” cognitive skills. These results seriously question the practical and theoretical importance of current computerized working memory programs as methods of training working memory skills.” (p. 512)

Melby-Lervåg, M., Redick, T. S., & Hulme, C. (2016). Working memory training does not improve performance on measures of intelligence or other measures of far transfer: Evidence from a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(4), 512–534.

“Morrison and Chein’s (2011) review argued that there is a lack of control with respect to effort/expectancy effects (e.g., better results of experimental groups due to the learners’ expectations of improvement) on outcome measures. Morrison and Chein noted that these and similar effects are not controlled by using adequate measures, such as self-reports and measures of motivation and commitment. To control for expectancy effects, Shipstead et al. (2012) suggested the inclusion of a control group that receives training that does not tax WM but is still adaptive, similar to the typical WM training tasks. Another limitation concerns the measurement of transfer effects. Morrison and Chein (2011) stressed that training paradigms, as well as tasks used for the assessment of transfer effects, are highly variable. These authors also raised concerns about the demonstration of transfer effects using tasks that capture only one aspect of the construct (e.g., matrix reasoning as an aspect of fluid intelligence in the studies by Jaeggi et al., 2008, and Jaeggi, Studer-Luethi, et al., 2010). Shipstead et al. (2012) stated that the abilities of interest should be measured with several instruments. Furthermore, near-transfer effects to WM components are often demonstrated with tasks that measure STM. More valid WM tasks, such as complex span tasks, have not been used consistently. Some studies failed to show a transfer to complex span tasks, and near-transfer effects might be attributed to task-specific overlaps between trained and transfer tasks (Shipstead et al., 2012). Even when transfer to complex span tasks has been demonstrated and can be traced back to improved executive attention, the specific mechanisms leading to it are not yet well understood (Morrison & Chein, 2011; Titz & Karbach, 2014; Von Bastian & Oberauer, 2014).” (p.140)

Schwaighofer, M., Fischer, F., & Bühner, M. (2015). Does working memory training transfer? A meta-analysis including training conditions as moderators. Educational Psychologist, 50(2), 138–166.

“In contrast to previous studies in preterm cohorts, we found little evidence of short- or long-term benefits of Cogmed on academic functioning, working memory, attention, or behavioral outcomes. These findings are of relevance because computerized cognitive training programs like Cogmed are popular tools for cognitive enhancement, with benefits reported across a range of domains. Our findings lead us to conclude that the use of Cogmed at early school age in extremely preterm/ ELBWchildren is not effective in improving outcomes for these children.” (p. 94)

Anderson, P.J., Lee, K.J., Roberts, G., Spencer-Smith, M.M., Thompson, D.K., Seal, M.L., Nosarti, C., Grehan, A., Josev, E.K., Gathercole, S., Doyle, L.W., & Pascoe, L. (2018). Long-term academic functioning following Cogmed working memory training for children born extremely preterm: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Pediatrics, 202, 92-97.

“Numerous recent studies seem to provide evidence for the general intellectual benefits of working memory training. In reviews of the training literature, Shipstead, Redick, and Engle (2010, 2012) argued that the field should treat recent results with a critical eye. Many published working memory training studies suffer from design limitations (no-contact control groups, single measures of cognitive constructs), mixed results (transfer of training gains to some tasks but not others, inconsistent transfer to the same tasks across studies), and lack of theoretical grounding (identifying the mechanisms responsible for observed transfer). The current study compared young adults who received 20 sessions of practice on an adaptive dual n-back program (working memory training group) or an adaptive visual search program (active placebo-control group) with a no-contact control group that received no practice. In addition, all subjects completed pretest, midtest, and posttest sessions comprising multiple measures of fluid intelligence, multitasking, working memory capacity, crystallized intelligence, and perceptual speed. Despite improvements on both the dual n-back and visual search tasks with practice, and despite a high level of statistical power, there was no positive transfer to any of the cognitive ability tests. We discuss these results in the context of previous working memory training research and address issues for future working memory training studies.

Redick, T.S., Shipstead, Z., Harrison, T.L., Hicks, K.L. Fried, D.E., Hambrick, D.Z., Kane, M.J., & Engle, R.W. (2013). No evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training: A randomized, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 142(2), 359-379.

“An ostensible strength of WM training is that it provides a focused, theoretically motivated method through which broad cognitive change may be stimulated (Klingberg, 2010; Sternberg, 2008). However, contrary to the reports provided at the beginning of this article (and contrary to the claims of commercial providers), the present literature provides insufficient evidence of its efficacy. Our primary concerns regard the need for researchers to (a) include multiple measures of abilities of interest, (b) consistently measure near transfer with valid WM capacity tasks that differ from the method of training, (c) eliminate the use of no-contact control groups, and (d) ensure that when subjective measures of change are used, raters are blind to condition assignment. Until these controls are consistently applied, the meaningfulness of training effects cannot be evaluated (p.647).

Shipstead, Z., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2012). Is working memory training effective? Psychological Bulletin, 138(4), 628-654.

“This study examines the relationship between working memory and reading achievement in 57 Swedish primary-school children with special needs. First, it was examined whether children’s working memory could be enhanced by a cognitive training program, and how the training outcomes would relate to their reading development. Next, it was explored how differential aspects of working memory are related to children’s reading outcomes. The working memory training yielded effects, and these effects appeared beneficial to children’s reading comprehension development. Working memory measures were found to be related with children’s word reading and reading comprehension. The results show that working memory can be seen as a crucial factor in the reading development of literacy among children with special needs, and that interventions to improve working memory may help children becoming more proficient in reading comprehension.” (p.479)

Karin I. E., & Dahlin, K.I.E. (2010). Effects of working memory training on reading in children with special needs. Reading and Writing, 24, 479–491.

“It has been suggested that working memory training programs are effective both as treatments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other cognitive disorders in children and as a tool to improve cognitive ability and scholastic attainment in typically developing children and adults. However, effects across studies appear to be variable, and a systematic meta-analytic review was undertaken. To be included in the review, studies had to be randomized controlled trials or quasi-experiments without randomization, have a treatment, and have either a treated group or an untreated control group. Twenty-three studies with 30 group comparisons met the criteria for inclusion. The studies included involved clinical samples and samples of typically developing children and adults. Meta-analyses indicated that the programs produced reliable short-term improvements in working memory skills. For verbal working memory, these near-transfer effects were not sustained at follow-up, whereas for visuospatial working memory, limited evidence suggested that such effects might be maintained. More importantly, there was no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills (nonverbal and verbal ability, inhibitory processes in attention, word decoding, and arithmetic). The authors conclude that memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize. Possible limitations of the review (including age differences in the samples and the variety of different clinical conditions included) are noted. However, current findings cast doubt on both the clinical relevance of working memory training programs and their utility as methods of enhancing cognitive functioning in typically developing children and healthy adults.”

Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 270–291.

“The current meta-analytic review evaluated the extent to which facilitative intervention training (FIT) programs improve the cognitive and behavioral functioning of children with ADHD. … Documenting near transfer effects is necessary to ensure that improvement is associated with training as opposed to task-specific factors associated with practice or expectancy effects, and also helps validate the mechanisms responsible for potential transfer to more distal (far transfer) cognitive and behavioral outcomes (Shipstead et al., 2012). Demonstrating far transfer effects, however, is by far the more critical training objective given that the goal of FIT programs is not to improve children's scores on laboratory-based EF tasks, but to improve their general cognitive abilities and the myriad functional outcomes dependent upon these abilities. When evaluating the extent to which FIT programs result in far transfer effects, it is important to emphasize that improvement in far transfer outcomes is limited to a considerable extent by two factors: the magnitude of documented near transfer change, and the degree to which the far transfer outcome is dependent on the trained EF for successful execution (Redick et al., 2013). … It was, however, congruent with our literature review indicating that short-term memory deficits, while apparent in many children with ADHD, are unrelated to most of the behavioral and functional outcomes associated with the disorder (e.g., Rapport et al., 2009). Unfortunately, most tasks included in programs marketed as “working memory” training were more accurately classified as short-term memory training (Gibson et al., 2011; Shipstead et al., 2012). Thus, the disappointing findings of minimal-to-no objectively measured improvements in behavior, academics, and cognitive functioning may reflect the incongruence between the specific EFs implicated in ADHD and the EFs targeted for training.” (p. 1248-9)

Rapport, M. D., Orban, S. A., Kofler, M. J., & Friedman, L. M. (2013). Do programs designed to train working memory, other executive functions, and attention benefit children with ADHD? A metaanalytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 1237–1252.

“A growing body of literature shows that one's working memory (WM) capacity can be expanded through targeted training. Given the established relationship between WM and higher cognition, these successful training studies have led to speculation that WM training may yield broad cognitive benefits. This review considers the current state of the emerging WM training literature, and details both its successes and limitations. We identify two distinct approaches to WM training, strategy training and core training, and highlight both the theoretical and practical motivations that guide each approach. Training-related increases in WM capacity have been successfully demonstrated across a wide range of subject populations, but different training techniques seem to produce differential impacts upon the broader landscape of cognitive abilities. In particular, core WM training studies seem to produce more far-reaching transfer effects, likely because they target domain-general mechanisms of WM. The results of individual studies encourage optimism regarding the value of WM training as a tool for general cognitive enhancement. However, we discuss several limitations that should be addressed before the field endorses the value of this approach.

Morrison, A.B., & Chein, J.M. (2011). Does working memory training work? The promise and challenges of enhancing cognition by training working memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(1):46-60

“This meta-analysis did not show sustained far-transfer effects of WM training to educationally relevant aspects such as verbal or mathematical abilities. Therefore the claim that WM training has practical benefits for learning or, more generally, education is not supported by the findings of this meta-analysis. If this is a valid interpretation of the findings obtained in the field, there is a straightforward conclusion: We should bury all hopes that learning and education can be improved by boosting some general-purpose basic cognitive functions and redirect our resources for educational research and practice to more promising fields. We believe, however, that this would be premature. The findings could instead be interpreted as implicating that we have not even started to seriously design and vary the training conditions or, put more generally, the learning environment.” (p. 156-7)

Schwaighofer, M., Fischer, F., & Bühner, M. (2015). Does working memory training transfer? A meta-analysis including training conditions as moderators. Educational Psychologist, 50(2), 138–166.

“Cogmed working memory training is sold as a tool for improving cognitive abilities, such as attention and reasoning. At present, this program is marketed to schools as a means of improving underperforming students’ scholastic performance, and is also available at clinical practices as a treatment for ADHD. We review research conducted with Cogmed software and highlight several concerns regarding methodology and replicability of findings. We conclude that the claims made by Cogmed are largely unsubstantiated, and recommend that future research place greater emphasis on developing theoretically motivated accounts of working memory training.

Shipstead, Z., Hicks, K.L., & Engle, R.W. (2012). Cogmed working memory training: Does the evidence support the claims? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(3), 185-193.

“Working memory (WM) is the limited capacity storage system involved in the maintenance and manipulation of information over short periods of time. WM plays a key role in a wide range of higher order cognitive functions and its impairment is observed in a wide range of psychiatric or neurological disorders, making it clinically important. Intensive adaptive training of WM has been shown to enhance individual WM. In this article, we review the studies and describe the methodologies of WM training, along with the psychological, clinical, and neuroimaging findings related to WM training. Training of WM is associated with a wide range of cognitive improvements in non-clinical and clinical subjects, although, on certain points, the results are divided. In clinical studies, training of WM was associated with an improvement of clinical symptoms outside the laboratory. Neuroimaging studies of WM training revealed the effect of WM training on the neural systems of the fronto-parietal network, which play a key role in WM. Still, a number of important issues remain uninvestigated, and we anticipate that future studies will solve these issues.

Takeuchi, H., Taki, Y., & Kawashima, R. (2010). Effects of working memory training on cognitive functions and neural systems. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 21(6), 427-49.




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