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Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Michael Shaughnessy,


Department of Psychology, Eastern New Mexico University, Portales, NM
88130.
North American Journal of Psychology, 2014, Vol. 16, No. 2, 285-296.
NAJP
An Interview with Dr. Tracy Alloway about
Working Memory
Tracy Alloway

( Interviewed on behalf of NAJP by)

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Tammy Lynne Moore
Eastern New Mexico University

Tracy P. Alloway is a Professor of Psychology at the University of North
Florida. Formerly she was the Director of the Center for Memory and
Learning in the Lifespan at an institution in the United Kingdom. She has
spent almost 15 years being part of cutting-edge research on the
importance of working memory in education. In addition to publishing
scientific articles, she has also written numerous books for academics,
educators and the general public on the importance of working memory.
She developed the internationally recognized Alloway Working Memory
Assessment. Working memory has become a key construct in the
psychological and intellectual literature over the past few decades. In this
interview, Dr. Alloway discusses some key issues and reviews some of
her research in this realm.

NAJP: What research are you currently working on?

TA: Im working on a number of different projects. My main research
interest is in working memory, which is our ability to work with
information. I recently just submitted a paper looking at working
memory and mental health, so we had a large scale study. We had a little
over three-thousand adults across a life-span of eighteen to seventy-nine.
We wanted to find out how our sense of optimism or our feelings of
depression are all related to working memory. For example, we found
that working memory mediates the optimism and depression, which
simply means that how optimistic we are, is determined by our working
memory, which in turn can impact our feelings of depression. In other
words, working memory helps us focus on more positive outcomes in our
lives, and this, in turn, can minimize feelings of depression. Thats one of
the projects that Im currently working on.
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There are a number of other projects related to working memory that
Ive been looking at, one of which is the role of working memory when it
comes to moral decisions. This is a project that Im working on with my
husband, Ross Alloway. Weve published a couple of pieces of research
together already (Alloway & Alloway, 2010; 2012; 2013a), and theres
been one or two pieces of research that looked at when people are
making moral decisions, you know these kinds of apocalyptic scenarios,
would you sacrifice one person for the greater good type scenarios.
Typically, brain imaging studies have found that the pre-frontal cortex,
which is the home of working memory, is highly activated when people
are making these kinds of decisions.
So, we wanted to look at it from an experimental viewpoint, look at
the relationship between more specifically our working memory
conductor how do we juggle all of this information, our sense of
empathy, and how this links into actually making different kinds of moral
decisions so thats a project that were about to kick-start in the fall.

NAJP: Youve done a great deal of research concerning working
memory. What prompted you to study this particular topic?

TA: I actually was introduced to working memory almost fifteen years
ago, and it was by a government-funded project. I was the lead researcher
on the ground, and we were interested in kindergarten children, and we
were specifically interested in how these kindergarteners would learn. In
other words, what are the commonest skills that they need to have in
place to help them be successful, not just in kindergarten, but two or
three years down the line as well; it was a longitudinal study. And so we
had a few hundred kindergarten students, we were looking at a whole
range of cognitive skills, IQ of course, phonological skills you know
how well they could do writing tasks, which as you know, is an
important precursor for reading and working memory. And one of the
things that kept coming up again and again is that their working memory
was highly predictive of how well they could read, how well they could
write, how well they could understand basic shapes, how well they could
recognize numbers these kind of early precursors for mathematical
skills. What was even more surprising to me was that working memory
was even more important than IQ (Alloway et al., 2005) and we found
this to be true even two years later, and, when I followed these children
up even six years later, we found that working memory was highly
predictive in learning outcome six years later when we were looking at
scores in standardized tests of reading and math (Alloway & Alloway,
2010).
Alloway, Shaughnessy & Moore INTERVIEW 287
So, really, it all began in that first government-funded project with
that first question: what do kindergarten children need to have in place to
help them be successful learners and good learners in the classroom. And
I began to realize more and more it was their working memory, and I
think just in understanding more and working with schools and
interviewing teachers and interviewing children and part of their different
government-funded projects, one of the things that has come out is that
working memory is different from IQ. But I like to, when I talk with
teachers, describe working memory as our ability to work with
information. In contrast, IQ is what you know; Working Memory is what
you do with what you know.
I know its a bit of a short hand, but sometimes that is quite useful,
when Im speaking with educators, to try to convey a little bit of how
working memory is important in a classroom setting. Thats really, I
guess, what started my interest for understanding more about working
memory. Education is my primary interest, although Ive since published
a number of different working memory projects in different areas. Ive
looked at, as Ive mentioned, the mental health study (Alloway, Alloway,
& Moulder, 2014), and Ive done a couple of projects with my husband
looking at whether different kinds of physical exercise can make an
impact, looking at technology, things like social media. Weve published
a few pieces of research on social media and working memory (Alloway
& Alloway, 2012; Alloway, Horton, Alloway, & Dawson 2013) and what
the relationship is there, and then obviously theoretical papers on
Working Memory (Alloway & Alloway, 2013a; Alloway et al., 2006).
For instance, earlier this year, we published a large-scale study
looking at working memory across the life span, how does it develop,
what happens as we age, the difference between the capacity model of
working memory versus the processing of working memory, what
changes and so on across the life span (Alloway & Alloway, 2013a), so
both the theory as well as the practical impact from an educational
perspective.

NAJP: Youve already kind of touched on this, but how do issues like
anxiety and depression affect working memory and vice versa?

TA: I think there are different theories when it comes to anxiety. One is
this idea that you may have an average working memory, and, again, Ill
use an image that I sometimes use when I speak with educators that is:
working memory is your brains post-it note. So, you have a limited
space and we know that to be true from both my research, as well as
other research labs, that there is a set capacity to our working memory,
and so one theory of the link between anxiety and working memory is
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that you may have an average working memory, but anxiety can use up
some of our working memory capacity and some of our post-it notes,
which gives us less space to work with information. So, think of test
anxiety or math anxiety--you may have a student with an average
working memory that should do well on that math test if they have that
mathematical knowledge in place. However, if they have test anxiety or
math anxiety, that could use up some of their working memory resources,
which could then jeopardize their performance in the math test, so thats
one theory of how anxiety and working memory work together, if you
will, work against each other when it comes to different kinds of
classroom situations.
Theres a similar relationship with depression. Typically, the research
on depression and working memory has focused more on the processing
aspect of working memory, so one of the things Ross and I just published
was a book that just came out this summer (2013), it is called The
Working Memory Advantage, and we have a whole chapter looking at
mental health. Both the research study that I mentioned as well as other
research labs the Stanford Mood lab has published a number of pieces
of research looking at working memory and depression and rumination,
and the pattern is similar (Joorman, Levens & Gotlib , 2011; Levens &
Gotlib, 2012; It seems to be linked to our ability to process information,
not so much capacity driven, but processing driven. So, how well we
process information seems to be linked to people who tend to process or
to ruminate on negative thoughts, which, in turn, can lead to more
depressive behaviors and tendencies. In contrast, others tend to focus
more on optimistic thoughts, and they use this to process facts, and this
can be less likely to lead to depressive feelings.

NAJP: What about pupils who might have medical health issues, pain
issues, how does this impact their working memory skills?

TA: Good question, one that we look at in The Working Memory
Advantage, the relationship between pain and working memory. Im sure
you can understand that for ethical reasons, we use mild pain, like a
mouthwash, for example, and have found that pain can interfere with
working memory performance. So, if theres even a mild discomfort, like
rinsing your mouth with a mouthwash for too long, causing that kind of
discomfort, can impair working memory performance.
On the other hand, Sanchez found (2011) that if someone was a pain
sufferer, a working memory task could take their mind off the pain and
not focus on that, so the relationship can work both ways, and that pain
can minimize working memory performance but, on the other hand,
using a working memory task can take your mind off the pain.
Alloway, Shaughnessy & Moore INTERVIEW 289

NAJP: When I think about technology and working memory, one thing
that comes to mind is the news on television; people are receiving a lot of
sets of information from the news anchor, the ticker at the bottom of the
screen, images off to the side, does this help promulgate working
memory, or does it hinder it, or is it just ignored?

TA: We found that working with multiple sources of social media online
or like you described with news we havent looked at that directly
can actually be a kind of working memory training, if you will, that
working with this kind of multiple processing of information can actually
boost working memory. Thats certainly what we found with our social
media individuals, those whom we were labeling as active users, so they
were working with multiple sources of social media simultaneously and
they could have a higher working memory than those who preferred to
work with one form of social media at a time rather than simultaneously
(Alloway & Alloway, 2012).
So my expectation, based on the findings from this active processing
of social media information, is that newscasters who constantly work
with multiple sources of information simultaneously can be training their
working memory in a sense, and can actually end up having a better
working memory as a result of constantly using it in this multi-
processing manner.

NAJP: In addition to news programs, we have other technology, like
cell phones, I-pads, tablets, as well as computers that allow users to
access multiple tools and multiple pieces of information; how might
these types of technology help or hinder working memory?

TA: Good question. There was a study done, I think now a couple of
years ago, also looking at working memory and looking at heavy users of
technology, whether we have multiple screens on simultaneously, and
part of that is how we prefer to use that information, so if that person has
a preference for using information simultaneously, then their working
memory seems to adapt to that format (Watson & Strayer, 2010). So, it
doesnt have to hinder them; their working memory can be perfectly
capable of following multiple screens. There have been other studies
recently, too, though looking at multitasking; they were looking at people
in a driving simulator, and they had to memorize lists that they were
given over the phone, and they found that when people were doing two
things that were demanding like driving in a busy environment, even
though it was a simulated environment as well as getting new
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information that was novel to them, their driving abilities decreased, so
they took longer to brake.
However, there was a small group of people who could excel in both
tasks, and the office called these people the super taskers where their
working memory was great and could boggle both of these tasks
simultaneously. So, I wouldnt say necessarily its the task itself, I think
its the individual and his or her working memory capacity.

NAJP: Okay. Youve already kind of answered this. Youve studied the
working memory of those with various learning disorders from ADHD to
Autism to twice exceptional gifted kids; briefly, what have you found?

TA: Yes, I sometimes draw, when I talk to educators, a Venn diagram
where youve got these different learning needs, and, at the core, what
they have in common is some aspect of working memory impairment or
working memory deficit, so, while they may have their unique core
deficit, so with ADHD, they may have problems with inhibition, with
dyslexia, difficulty with reading, and so on; at the core, they do share
some aspect of the working memory deficit that can have this kind of
cumulative or additive affect, to the disorder.
So, if you take ADHD, these persons have a problem with behavioral
inhibitions, but they also have a problem with working memory, and
together it has the additive affect that can impair learning; what we do
know from our research is oftentimes the link between working memory
and learning this is true with ADHD, its true with children with
developmental coordination disorder that working memory has a
unique, predictive affect on learning, unique from IQ, so, in other words,
this ability to work or process information is distinct from whatever is
being measured by IQ tests, and that is able to tell us something unique
about how theyre learning.
So, working memory isnt all bundled up under this big IQ umbrella,
its actually telling us something very special and distinctive about how
these students learn, which is predicting their learning outcomes
ultimately. Thus, as educators, I guess the bottom line is that its not just
enough to look at a verbal IQ score, or even a non-verbal IQ score, and
make decisions about their learning needs, or the other learning strategies
that we need to have in place. We need to be looking at their working
memory because thats telling us how well theyre able to actually work
with that information; I think another example would be with Specific
Language Impairment.
They may have a specific knowledge deficit, they may have trouble
with learning rhyming words, or they may difficulty with spelling certain
words, but that working memory deficit is something distinctive from
Alloway, Shaughnessy & Moore INTERVIEW 291
that, and that can compound learning difficulties, so sometimes educators
will say, well if a student has a language difficulty, we give them special
language supports, but its not enough; its important that they have that
language knowledge, but we need to also help them work with that
knowledge, and thats where working memory comes in.

NAJP: How do race, ethnicity, and culture influence working memory?

TA: Thats a question that Im in the midst of investigating right now. I
have published a standardized test with Pearson Assessment the
Automated Working Memory Assessment (Alloway, 2007). They just
released the second edition in December last year, and, because of that,
weve had twenty different translations, and because of these
collaborations, weve been able to collect data from all over the world,
and, because its the same test, just presented in different languages,
weve been able to pool data. Were in the midst of investigating whether
these developmental patterns (this is just based in childhood, so were
looking at five- to twelve-year-olds) are mirrored in different countries
and different languages.

NAJP: What role do genetics play in working memory?

TA: Thereve been a couple published studies looking at genetics and
working memory in twin studies (Kremen et al., 2007), and I have
collected data as well from one of the largest adult data bases, and thats
something that were analyzing and what the published research has
found, and what Im finding in my early analysis from my own data set,
is that identical twins have a correlation between their working memory
scores higher than the fraternal twins. So, these are suggestions that
theres a genetic component in working memory; the link seems to be a
little closer than with a skill like IQ.
I think some reports have it at 50% of the genetic contribution and the
trend seems to be, in these studies, it is a little higher, stronger genetic
link. What we do know, over the last five or six years, is that changing
various different things like your diet, your physical activity seems to be
able to make a difference in improving working memory across the life
span. There have been studies of the elderly, middle-aged adults, college-
age adults, children, looking at everything from brain training programs,
to different kinds of foods we eat, physical activity, and these have been
found to improve working memory (see Alloway & Alloway, 2013b). So
working memory is not just fixed or static as a result of this genetic
component.

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NAJP: How predictive is working memory and IQ concerning academic
attainment (and youve kind of addressed this already)?

TA: From special learning needs like ADHD or high functioning ASD
or to the gifted on the other end of the learning spectrum, the patterns
seem to be similar. Some of these studies have very large numbers like
three thousand subjects (Alloway et al., 2009), some of them have
smaller numbers of participants in the study, but the pattern is similar in
that working memory has a unique contribution to learning. So, in other
words, (with hierarchical regression analysis to control for the
contribution of IQ), we see that working memory is still predicting
learning outcomes. Oftentimes, IQ is measured with the WISC, and I
focus on the verbal and the non-verbal IQ scores. And we see that
working memory is a distinctive skill from IQ when it comes to learning
and it has unique, predictive power when it comes to learning outcomes.

NAJP: How does being born from a mother with Type I Diabetes affect
the childs working memory?

TA: For that particular study, I was not the Principal Investigator, I was
just one of the co-investigators on the working memory component on
that (Temple, Hardiman, Martinez-Cengotitabengoa, Alloway, 2010) and
that was at the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, and they
found that children of mothers with gestational diabetes tended to have
worse verbal short-term memory I believe than their typically developing
counterparts, and that was the outcome. Its been awhile since Ive
looked at that particular study, so Im not sure if I can recall all of the
arguments behind why that is just right.

NAJP: Youve conducted several studies of children with develop-
mental coordination disorder, what have you found with those guys?

TA: Thats very interesting. I think in the UK its quite a common
diagnosis. Im not so sure if it has that same sense here, although I know
occupational therapists who are aware of it. It may fall under the general
label of sensory integration disorder. Typically DCD is defined as having
difficulty with growth movements, the large movements balance for
example with fine motion movements like holding a pencil, buttoning a
button, tying a shoelace, and so on. What I found with that particular
cohort was that the children with DCD had very poor visual working
memory while they had very poor working memory performance across
the board, they had a particular impairment in visual working memory.
Alloway, Shaughnessy & Moore INTERVIEW 293
One possibility is that the visual working memory tests that are used
involve a motor component, so you have this additive effect that I
referred to earlier. You have the movement problems that these children
experience as well as the poor ability to process and keep all that
information in mind, and, if they have a task that involves motor skills as
well as working memory, theyre going to do perform poorly. The other
thing I found was that I had a pilot intervention study that we were
looking at, looking at a program called Brain Gym, where you learn how
to balance, you know, you touch a finger to your nose, the program
suggests that you integrate your left side of your body together with your
right side of your body; there is one way they would describe it, and I
know its quite popular with a number of schools and so on. So, what we
wanted to find out here in the study is if children with DCD were
receiving this specifically physical-based intervention, would it also have
this transfer effect between their working memory and ultimately to
improving their learning outcome, and what we found out was that we
had two groups, one was receiving this physical intervention for thirteen
weeks, another group just carried on as usual without any kind of
intervention, and we found that those receiving the intervention-type
exercises did better at the physical exercises, but it didnt transfer to their
learning outcome. In other words, again that working memory represents
a separate cognitive skill, and, if we want to see true improvements in
learning outcomes, we need to target that specifically, not just the core
deficits that these students with learning difficulties are experiencing.

NAJP: How can the average teacher improve the average students
working memory?

TA: There are multiple classroom strategies that the teacher can use.
The first real key step is to be aware of what a working memory
difficulty might look like in the classroom, and this is based on a study
that was published, I think a couple of years ago, where we did
interviews with the classroom teachers, we asked them to talk about their
knowledge of working memory, what they thought working memory
was, and then also to rate some students in their classrooms on their
working memory behavior. What we found was this kind of disconnect
between their knowledge of working memory, and their ability to test
that in a student. They knew what working memory was, but they
werent always able to detect those things when they were seeing those
behaviors in a particular student (Alloway, Doherty-Sneddon, & Forbes,
2012).
So, the first key is for the teacher to be aware of what it might look
like in a student, so, instead of just saying well, theyre just not trying,
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or theyre just being lazy, understand what is behind their behavior; is it
really that they are not trying, or is it perhaps that their working memory
space isnt big enough to cope and process all that information in a fast-
paced classroom?
The second step is that if they do indeed have a working memory
problem this can be verified with either a screening tool, or one of the
standardized IQ tests that has a working memory test as part of that
theres also behavioral-tests that Ive mentioned to you, a number of
different sources that a teacher can use to determine if a student does
have a working memory need. He or she can look at very easy ways to
adapt the classroom; he or she can look at very easy ways to adapt the
classroom to support the childs working memory, giving them fewer
activities to complete, maybe more time so that they can process the
information at their leisure for example.

NAJP: In terms of cognitive and behavioral characteristics of kids with
low working memory, what kind of things does the average teacher see?

TA: Well, the teachers report that they are not hyperactive or impulsive;
theyre not oppositional, so theyre distinct from the behaviors of an
ADHD student. They dont display those same kinds of behaviors. What
they do tend to display is very similar to the inattentive types of ADHD
kids, the ones that they would call the daydreamers, the unmotivated
student, so thats the behavioral profile. Their cognitive profile is
obviously a low working memory. They may also have a low IQ score or
below average IQ score, but it doesnt have to be the case. We have seen
cohorts of students where they have average IQ, but poor working
memory, so they have the knowledge in place as captured by these verbal
IQ tests, but they may not have the capacity to process that knowledge
adequately for a classroom setting.

NAJP: Are verbal and visual, spatial, short-term and then working
memory in children separable?

TA: Yes, they are separable. Typically, short-term memory tends to
measure just the retention or recall of information. Theres no processing
involved, so, the teacher said something, the student can repeat the
instructions because all theyre doing is using their short-term memory,
but when they actually sit back in their desks, they have to think about
what book they need and actually carry out and process that instruction
by unpacking that, that requires working memory, and they struggle at
that point. So, the teacher may look at their retention of recall of
information and think that they dont have a problem because theyre not
Alloway, Shaughnessy & Moore INTERVIEW 295
looking at how well they can process that information. So, yes, it is
separable when it comes to verbal and spatial working memory, thats
also separable. We do know that verbal or auditory memory tends to be
more language driven, and can have an impact on reading and language-
based tasks, where visual spatial working memory can impact how
students learn in math, you know, pattern recognition and spatial
navigation and so on.

NAJP: Were now at the final big wrap-up question. What have we
neglected to ask you thats important about working memory?

TA: I think probably from an academic perspective, theres an ongoing
debate about whether working memory is separable from IQ.
So, from an educational perspective, I guess what I often get asked is
why should I care about working memory in my classroom. In other
words, what impact does it have? And thats something that we
summarize in our book. Theres a chapter thats called the Most
Important Learning Tool, and we try to instill my own research over the
last fifteen years as well as other research labs, people whove looked
specifically at ADHD and working memory or language impairments and
working memory and so on and try to kind of bring that all together to
convey how important working memory is, because its not just
knowledge is not enough in the process, its not enough that our students
can refer to information and know the facts, they actually have to work
with that information, and one example that we use in the book is that
you know, if you think of a high school student, and they have to write
an essay or a book report comparing and contrasting two books, well if
its just facts, well then the student can tell you the plot and the setting
and some of the main characters, but its your working memory that pulls
out the important questions why is one book more important than the
other, or how are these books similar, or what do they have in common,
how are they distinct, and so working memory in just this simple
example is really how we pull our information together, how we work
with information, and thats why its so important for education and for
educators to be aware of how their students can use their working
memory.
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