Educational Psychology Review

, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 333–351 | Cite as

Reconceptualizing Working Memory in Educational Research

  • Barbara FenesiEmail author
  • Faria Sana
  • Joseph A. Kim
  • David I. Shore
Review Article


In recent years, research from cognitive science has provided a solid theoretical framework to develop evidence-based interventions in education. In particular, research into reading, writing, language, mathematics and multimedia learning has been guided by the application of Baddeley’s multicomponent model of working memory. However, an over-reliance on this single perspective has overlooked the theoretical diversity of contemporary research into working memory. We review the successes and shortcomings of applying Baddeley’s model in accounting for a range of evidence and draw attention to alternative models that have been largely ignored within educational research. Specifically, we evaluate frameworks of working memory provided by Kane, Engle and colleagues (attentional control model) and Cowan (embedded process model). We conclude that these alternative views can support a reconceptualization of the contributions of working memory to academic learning that may not be afforded by interpretations of the prevailing multicomponent model.


Working memory Learning Education Attention 


  1. Alamargot, D., & Chanquoy, L. (2001). Through the models of writing. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, J. R. (2005). Cognitive psychology and its implications. New York: Worth Publishers.Google Scholar
  3. Anderson, J. R., Bothell, D., Byrne, M. D., Douglass, S., Lebiere, C., & Qin, Y. (2004). An integrated theory of the mind. Psychological Review, 111(4), 1036.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Andersson, U., & Lyxell, B. (2007). Working memory deficit in children with mathematical difficulties: a general or specific deficit? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 96, 197–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Atkins, P. W. B., & Baddeley, A. D. (1998). Working memory and distributed vocabulary learning. Applied Psycholinguistics, 19, 537–552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Baddeley, A. (1986). Working memory. Oxford Psychology Series #11. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  7. Baddeley, A. D. (1990). Human memory: theory and practice. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  8. Baddeley, A. D. (1998). Recent developments in working memory. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 8, 234–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Baddeley, A. D. (2000). The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 417–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Baddeley, A. D. (2003). Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4, 829–839.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Baddeley, A. D. (2007). Working memory, thought and action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Baddeley, A. (2010). Working memory. Current Biology, 20(4), R136–R140.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Baddeley, A. D. (2012). Working memory: theories, models, and controversies. Annual Review of Psychology, 63, 1–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (1974). Working memory. In G. H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47–89). New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  15. Baddeley, A. D., & Wilson, B. A. (2002). Prose recall and amnesia: implications for the structure of working memory. Neuropsychologia, 40, 1737–1743.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Baddeley, A. D., Vallar, G., & Wilson, B. A. (1987). Sentence comprehension and phonological memory: some neuropsychological evidence. In M. Coltheart (Ed.), Attention and performance XII: the psychology of reading (pp. 509–529). Hove: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  17. Baddeley, A. D., Gathercole, S. E., & Papagno, C. (1998). The phonological loop as a language learning device. Psychological Review, 105(1), 158–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Brooks, L. R. (1968). Spatial and verbal components of the act of recall. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 22, 349–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Camos, V., & Barrouillet, P. (2011). Developmental change in working memory strategies: from passive maintenance to active refreshing. Developmental Psychology, 47, 898–904.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Chein, J. M., Ravizza, S. M., & Fiez, J. A. (2003). Using neuroimaging to evaluate models of working memory and their implications for language processing. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 16(4), 315–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Conway, A. R. A., Cowan, N., & Bunting, M. F. (2001). The cocktail party phenomenon revisited: the importance of working memory capacity. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8, 331–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Cornoldi, C., De Beni, R., & Pazzaglia, F. (1996). Profiles of reading comprehension difficulties: an analysis of single cases. In C. Cornoldi & J. Oakhill (Eds.), Reading comprehension difficulties: processes and intervention (pp. 113–136). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.Google Scholar
  23. Cowan, N. (1988). Evolving conceptions of memory storage, selective attention, and their mutual constraints within the human information processing system. Psychological Bulletin, 104, 163–191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Cowan, N. (1999). An embedded-process model of working memory. In A. Miyake & P. Shah (Eds.), Models of working memory: mechanisms of active maintenance and executive control (pp. 62–101). New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Cowan, N. (2005). Working memory capacity. Hove, East Sussex, England: Psychology Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Cowan, N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? In Sossin, W. S., Lacaille, J. C., Castellucci, V. F., & Belleville, S. (Eds.), Progress in brain research, Vol 169. Elsevier.Google Scholar
  27. Cowan, N. (2010). The magical mystery four how is working memory capacity limited, and why? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 51–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Cowan, N. (2014). Working memory underpins cognitive development, learning, and education. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 197–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Cowan, N., Rouder, J. N., Blume, C. L., & Saults, J. S. (2012). Models of verbal working memory capacity: what does it take to make them work? Psychological Review, 119, 480–499.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Crain, S., Shankweiler, D., Macaruso, P., & Barshalom, E. (1990). Working memory and comprehension of spoken sentences: investigations of children with reading disorders. In G. Vallar & T. Shallice (Eds.), Neuropsychological impairments of short-term memory (pp. 477–508). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19(4), 450–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Daneman, M., & Merikle, P. M. (1996). Working memory and language comprehension: a meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3, 422–433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Daneman, M., & Tardif, T. (1987). Working memory and reading skill reexamined. In M. Coltheart (Ed.), Attention and performance, XII: the psychology of reading (pp. 491–508). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.Google Scholar
  34. Das, J. P., & Janzen, C. (2004). Learning math: basic concepts, math difficulties, and suggestions for intervention. Developmental Disabilities Bulletin, 32(2), 191–205.Google Scholar
  35. Davelaar, E. J., Goshen-Gottstein, Y., Ashkenazi, A., Haarmann, H. J., & Usher, M. (2005). The demise of short-term memory revisited: empirical and computational investigations of recency effects. Psychological Review, 112(1), 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Dehn, M. J. (2008). Working memory and academic learning: assessment an intervention. Hoboken: Wiley.Google Scholar
  37. Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Uber das Gedachtnis. New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  38. Engle, R. W. (2002). Working memory capacity as executive attention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(1), 19–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Engle, R. W., & Kane, M. J. (2004). Executive attention, working memory capacity, and a two-factor theory of cognitive control. In B. Ross (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 44, pp. 145–199). New York: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  40. Engle, R. W., Cantor, J., & Carullo, J. (1992). Individual differences in working memory and comprehension: a test of four hypotheses. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 18, 972–992.Google Scholar
  41. Engle, R. W., Kane, M. J., & Tuholski, S. W. (1999a). Individual differences in working memory capacity and what they tell us about controlled attention, general fluid intelligence and functions of the prefrontal cortex. In A. Miyake, & P. Shah (Eds.), Models of working memory: mechanisms of active maintenance and executive control (pp. 102–132). Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Engle, R. W., Tuholski, S. W., Laughlin, J. E., & Conway, A. R. (1999b). Working memory, short-term memory and general fluid intelligence: a latent variable approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 128, 309–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Gaillard, V., Barrouillet, P., Jarrold, C., & Camos, V. (2011). Developmental differences in working memory: where do they come from? Journal Of Experimental Child Psychology, 110, 469–479.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T. P. (2004). Working memory and classroom learning. Dyslexia Review, 15, 4–9.Google Scholar
  45. Gathercole, S. E., & Baddeley, A. D. (1990). The role of phonological memory in vocabulary acquisition: a study of young children learning arbitrary names of toys. British Journal of Psychology, 81, 439–454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Gathercole, S. E., & Baddeley, A. D. (1993). Phonological working memory: A critical building block for reading development and vocabulary acquisition? European Journal of the Psychology of Education, 8, 259–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Hebb, D. O. (1949). Organization of behavior. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  48. Hitch, G. J., Towse, J. N., & Hutton, U. (2001). What limits children’s working memory span? Theoretical accounts and applications for scholastic development. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(2), 184–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Imbo, I., Vandierendonck, A., & De Rammelaere, S. (2007). The role of working memory in the carry operation of mental arithmetic: number and value of the carry. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 60, 708–731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Imbo, I., Vandierendonck, A., & Vergauwe, E. (2008). The role of working memory in carrying and borrowing. Psychological Research, 71, 467–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 403–404). New York: Henry Holt.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Just, M. A., & Carpenter, P. A. (1992). A capacity theory of comprehension. Psychological Review, 99, 122–149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Kahana, M. J., Sederberg, P. B., & Howard, M. W. (2008). Putting short-term memory into context: reply to Usher, Davelaar, Haarmann, and Goshen-Gottstein (2008). Psychological Review, 115, 1119–1126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2000). Working-memory capacity, proactive interference, and divided attention: limits on long-term memory retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, 336–358.Google Scholar
  55. Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2002). The role of prefrontal cortex in working-memory capacity, executive attention, and general fluid intelligence: an individual-differences perspective. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 9, 637–671.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Kane, M. J., Bleckley, M. K., Conway, A. R. A., & Engle, R. W. (2001). A controlled-attention view of working-memory capacity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 169–183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Kane, M. J., Hambrick, D. Z., Tuholski, S. W., Wilhelm, O., Payne, T. W., & Engle, R. W. (2004). The generality of working-memory capacity: a latent-variable approach to verbal and visuospatial memory span and reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133, 189–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Kane, M. J., Conway, A. R. A., Hambrick, D. Z., & Engle, R. W. (2007). Variation in working memory capacity as variation in executive attention and control. In A. R. A. Conway, C. Jarrold, M. J. Kane, A. Miyake, & J. N. Towse (Eds.), Variation in working memory (pp. 21–48). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Karatekin, C. (2004). A test of the integrity of the components of Baddeley’s model of working memory in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Journal of Child Psychological and Psychiatry, 45, 912–926.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Kellogg, R. T. (1996). A model of working memory in writing. In C. M. Levy & S. Ransdell (Eds.), The science of writing: theories, methods, individual differences, and applications (pp. 57–71). Mahwah: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  61. Kellogg, R. T. (1999). Components of working memory in text production. In M. Torrance & G. Jeffery (Eds.), The cognitive demands of writing (pp. 143–161). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Kellogg, R. T., Olive, T., & Piolat, A. (2007). Verbal, visual, and spatial working memory in written language production. Acta Psychologica, 124, 382–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Kercood, S., & Grskovic, J. A. (2009). The effects of highlighting on the math computation performance and off-task behavior of students with attention problems. Education and Treatment of Children, 32(2), 231–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Kyllonen, P. C. (1996). Is working memory capacity Spearman’s g? In I. Dennis & P. Tapsfield (Eds.), Human abilities: their nature and measurement (pp. 49–76). Mahwah: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  65. Levy, C. M., & Marek, P. (1999). Testing components of Kellogg’s multicomponent model of working memory in writing: the role of the phonological loop. In M. Torrance & G. Jeffery (Eds.), The cognitive demands of writing (pp. 25–41). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.Google Scholar
  66. Logie, R. H., Gilhooly, K. J., & Wynn, V. (1994). Counting on working memory in arithmetic problem solving. Memory & Cognition, 22(4), 395–410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Lusk, D. L., Evans, A. D., Jeffrey, T. R., Palmer, K. R., Wikstrom, C. S., & Doolittle, P. E. (2009). Multimedia learning and individual differences: mediating the effects of working memory capacity with segmentation. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(4), 636–651. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00848.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Mackey, A., Philip, J., Egi, T., Fujii, A., & Tatsumi, T. (2002). Individual differences in working memory, noticing of interactional feedback and L2 development. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Individual differences and instructed language learning (pp. 181–209). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Mayer, R. E. (1989). Systematic thinking fostered by illustrations in scientific text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 240–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multi-media learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. McCutchen, D. (1996). A capacity theory of writing: working memory in composition. Educational Psychology Review, 8, 299–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Miller, G. A., Galanter, E., & Pribram, K. H. (1960). Plans and the structure of behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Nairne, J. S. (2002). Remembering over the short-term: the case against the standard model. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 53–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Nation, K., Adams, J. W., Bowyer-Crane, C. A., & Snowling, M. J. (1999). Working memory impairments in poor comprehenders reflect underlying language impairments. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 73, 139–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Noel, M., Desert, M., Auburn, A., & Seron, X. (2001). Involvement of short-term memory in complex mental calculation. Memory and Cognition, 29, 34–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Oberauer, K. (2002). Access to information in working memory: exploring the focus of attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 28, 411–421.Google Scholar
  78. Oberauer, K., & Lewandowsky, S. (2011). Modeling working memory: a computational implementation of the time-based resource-sharing theory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18, 10–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Oberauer, K., Sub, H. M., Schulze, R., Wilhelm, O., & Wittman, W. W. (2000). Working memory capacity—facets of a cognitive ability construct. Personality and Individual Differences, 29, 1017–1045.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Olive, T. (2004). Working memory in writing: empirical evidence from the dual-task technique. European Psychologist, 9, 32–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Paivio, A. (1986). Mental representations: a dual coding approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  82. Passolunghi, M. C., & Siegel, L. S. (2001). Short-term memory, working memory, and inhibitory control in children with difficulties in arithmetic problem-solving. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 80, 44–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Redick, T. S., Shipstead, Z., Harrison, T. L., Hicks, K. L., Fried, D. E., Hambrick, D. Z., et al. (2013). No evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training: a randomized, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(2), 359–379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Rosen, V. M., & Engle, R. W. (1997). The role of working memory capacity in retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 126, 211–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Rourke, B. P. (1993). Arithematic disabilities, specific and otherwise: a neuropsychological perspective. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26(4), 214–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Schweppe, J., & Rummer, R. (2014). Attention, working memory, and long-term memory in multimedia learning: an integrated perspective based on process models of working memory. Educational Psychology Review, 1–22.Google Scholar
  87. Sederberg, P. B., Howard, M. W., & Kahana, M. J. (2008). A context-based theory of recency and continguity in free recall. Psychological Review, 115, 893–912.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Service, E. (1992). Phonology, working memory, and foreign language learning. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 45(1), 21–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (2005). Instructional design (3rd ed.). Hoboken: Wiley.Google Scholar
  90. Swanson, H. L. (2000). Are working memory deficits in readers with learning disabilities hard to change? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33, 551–566.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Swanson, H. L., & Berninger, V. (1994). Individual differences in children’s working memory and writing skill. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 63, 358–385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Swanson, H. L., & Siegel, L. (2001). Learning disabilities as a working memory deficit. Issues in Education: Contributions from Educational Psychology, 7, 1–48.Google Scholar
  93. Swanson, H. L., Howard, C. B., & Saez, L. (2006). Do different components of working memory underlie different subgroups of reading disabilities? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 252–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4(4), 295–312.Google Scholar
  95. Sweller, J., & Chandler, P. (1994). Why some material is difficult to learn. Cognition and Instruction, 12, 185–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Tronsky, L. N. (2005). Strategy use, the development of automaticity, and working memory involvement in complex multiplication. Memory & Cognition, 33, 927–940.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Turner, M. L., & Engle, R. W. (1989). Is working memory capacity task dependent? Journal of Memory and Language, 28, 127–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Unsworth, N., & Engle, R. W. (2007). The nature of individual differences in working memory capacity: active maintenance in primary memory and controlled search from secondary memory. Psychological Review, 114(1), 104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Unsworth, N., Heitz, R. P., Schrock, J. C., & Engle, R. W. (2005). An automated version of the operation span task. Behavior Research Methods, 37(3), 498–505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Usher, M., Davelaar, E. J., Haarmann, H. J., & Goshen-Gottstein, Y. (2008). Short-term memory after all: comment on Sederberg, Howard, and Kahana (2008). Psychological Review, 115, 1108–1118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Vanderberg, R., & Swanson, H. L. (2007). Which components of working memory are important in the writing process? Reading and Writing, 20(7), 721–752.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Was, C. A., & Woltz, D. J. (2007). Reexamining the relationship between working memory and comprehension: the role of available long-term memory. Journal of Memory and Language, 56(1), 86–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. Waters, G. S., & Caplan, D. (1996). The capacity theory of sentence comprehension: critique of Just and Carpenter (1992). Psychological Review, 103(4), 761–772.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  104. Willcutt, E. G., Pennington, B. F., Boada, R., Ogline, J. S., Tunick, R. A., Chhabildas, N. A., & Olson, R. K. (2001). A comparison of the cognitive deficits in reading disability and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 110(1), 157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara Fenesi
    • 1
    Email author
  • Faria Sana
    • 1
  • Joseph A. Kim
    • 1
  • David I. Shore
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Psychology, Neuroscience, and BehaviourMcMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada

Personalised recommendations