Memory & Cognition

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 341-348

First online:

On the interpretation of working memory span in adults

  • John N. TowseAffiliated withRoyal Holloway, University of London Email author 
  • , Graham J. HitchAffiliated withUniversity of Lancaster
  • , Una HuttonAffiliated withRoyal Holloway, University of London


Experimental research into children’s working memory span has shown that retention duration contributes substantially to span performance, while processing efficiency need not be related to concurrent memory load (Towse, Hitch, & Hutton, 1998). These findings have been used to argue for a model of working memory span that emphasizes time-based forgetting rather than the popular resource-sharing or tradeoff framework. The present paper considers whether adults perform working memory span tasks in a qualitatively different way. Data from reading span and operation span tasks show that adults’ performance can be distinguished from that of children, but also that a task-switching model of working memory span can explain some important aspects of performance.