The Effect of Working Memory Components on Maths Competencies

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Experimental Psychology


Human working memory is a limited capacity storage system that temporarily maintains information in the service of goal-directed behaviour. Psychologists and educationalists study working memory function because of overwhelming evidence that it plays a role in determining real-world skills including maths achievement. There have been several models of working memory in the psychological literature, with the multi-component model proposed by Baddeley and Hitch (1974) being the most influential. The psychological account of mathematics which most closely relates the multi-component working memory model to maths competencies was first proposed by Geary (2004). Geary stated that maths achievement is a combination of two separable skills (conceptual understanding and procedural knowledge). The conceptual aspects of a maths problem are presented in a form that can be maintained in working memory by either the phonological or visuo-spatial storage systems, whereas the executive control system enacts the procedures required during problem-solving.

Although previous studies have provided evidence for the importance of working memory in different maths areas, very little research has addressed the specific effect of sub-components of working memory on the different components of mathematics. This work will decompose working memory into the contributions of storage capacity, processing efficiency, and the ability to resist the distraction caused by processing activities. In addition, it will examine the relationship between these key aspects of working memory and the conceptual understanding and procedural knowledge aspects of mathematics highlighted by Geary (2004). The proposed research therefore substantially extends the existing literature by examining the relationship between these components of working memory and maths competency in a novel and integrated set of studies.

There are two aims of this research; first to analyse how and to what extent key working memory components contribute to maths competencies; second to use this knowledge to develop an evidence-based working memory intervention that can improve maths achievement. The proposed research contributes to Geary's (2004) influential framework for maths understanding by adopting a highly current psychological model of working memory function. The expected outcomes are to be able to describe how working memory links to maths performance, the underlying working memory difficulties which cause students' underperformance in school, and the possible training which could help to improve these weaknesses. The proposed research will provide a fuller picture of working memory and math learning; it will also help to identify the cognitive skills underpinning conceptual understanding and procedural skills in maths. These outcomes will not only aid pedagogy to help students overcome any difficulties in their math learning, but also help teachers to better identify students who could potentially suffer from working memory difficulties that affect their learning.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2221064 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Kailing Li