Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 12, Issue 5, pp 769–786 | Cite as

Working memory span tasks: A methodological review and user’s guide

  • Andrew R. A. Conway
  • Michael J. Kane
  • Michael F. Bunting
  • D. Zach Hambrick
  • Oliver Wilhelm
  • Randall W. Engle
Theoretical and Review Articles

Abstract

Working memory (WM) span tasks—and in particular, counting span, operation span, and reading span tasks—are widely used measures of WM capacity. Despite their popularity, however, there has never been a comprehensive analysis of the merits of WM span tasks as measurement tools. Here, we review the genesis of these tasks and discuss how and why they came to be so influential. In so doing, we address the reliability and validity of the tasks, and we consider more technical aspects of the tasks, such as optimal administration and scoring procedures. Finally, we discuss statistical and methodological techniques that have commonly been used in conjunction with WM span tasks, such as latent variable analysis and extreme-groups designs.

References

  1. Anderson, J. R., &Lebiere, C. (1998).The atomic components of Thought. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, N. S. (1960). Poststimulus cuing in immediate memory.Journal of Experimental Psychology,60, 216–221.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arnett, P. A., Higginson, C. H., Voss, W. D., Bender, W. I., Wurst, J. M., &Tippin, J. M. (1999). Depression in multiple sclerosis: Relationship to working memory capacity.Neuropsychology,13, 546–556.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baddeley, A. D. (1986).Working memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Baddeley, A. D., &Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G. A. Bower (Ed.),The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47–89). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  6. Barrett, L. F., Tugade, M. M., &Engle, R. W. (2004). Individual differences in working memory capacity and dual-process theories of the mind.Psychological Bulletin,130, 553–573.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Barrouillet, P. (1996). Transitive inferences from set-inclusion relations and working memory.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,22, 1408–1422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Benton, S. L., Kraft, R. G., Glover, J. A., &Plake, B. S. (1984). Cognitive capacity differences among writers.Journal of Educational Psychology,76, 820–834.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bleckley, M. K., Durso, F. T., Crutchfield, J. M., Engle, R. W., &Khanna, M. M. (2004). Individual differences in working memory capacity predict visual attention allocation.Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,10, 884–889.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Brewin, C. R., &Beaton, A. (2002). Thought suppression, intelligence, and working memory capacity.Behaviour Research & Therapy,40, 923–930.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bunting, M. F. (in press). Proactive interference and item similarity in working memory.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition.Google Scholar
  12. Cantor, J., &Engle, R. W. (1993). Working-memory capacity as longterm memory activation: An individual-differences approach.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,19, 1101–1114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Case, R., Kurland, M. D., &Goldberg, J. (1982). Operational efficiency and the growth of short-term memory span.Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,33, 386–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Clarkson-Smith, L., &Hartley, A. A. (1990). The game of bridge as an exercise in working memory and reasoning.Journal of Gerontology,45, P233-P238.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Cohen, J. (1983). The cost of dichotomization.Applied Psychological Measurement,3, 249–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Conway, A. R. A., Cowan, N., Bunting, M. F., Therriault, D., &Minkoff, S. (2002). A latent variable analysis of working memory capacity, short term memory capacity, processing speed, and general fluid intelligence.Intelligence,30, 163–183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Conway, A. R. A., &Engle, R. W. (1994). Working memory and retrieval: A resource-dependent inhibition model.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,123, 354–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Conway, A. R. A., &Engle, R. W. (1996). Individual differences in working memory capacity: More evidence for a general capacity theory.Memory,4, 577–590.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Conway, A. R. A., &Kane, M. J. (2001). Capacity, control and conflict: An individual differences perspective on attentional capture. In C. Folk & B. Gibson (Eds.),Attraction, distraction and action: Multiple perspectives on attention capture (pp. 349–372). Amsterdam: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Conway, A. R. A., Kane, M. J., &Engle, R. W. (2003). Working memory capacity and its relation to general intelligence.Trends in Cognitive Sciences,7, 547–552.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Copeland, D. E., &Radvansky, G. A. (2001). Phonological similarity in working memory.Memory & Cognition,29, 774–776.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Cowan, N. (1995).Attention and memory: An integrated framework. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Cowan, N., Towse, J. N., Hamilton, Z., Saults, J. S., Elliott, E. M., Lacey, J. F., et al. (2003). Children’s working-memory processes: A response-timing analysis.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,132, 113–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Craik, F. I. M. (1986). A functional account of age differences in memory. In F. Klix & H. Hagendorf (Eds.),Human memory and cognitive Capabilities (pp. 409–422). Amsterdam: North-Holland.Google Scholar
  25. Daneman, M., &Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading.Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior,19, 450–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Daneman, M., &Carpenter, P. A. (1983). Individual differences in integrating information between and within sentences.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,9, 561–584.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Daneman, M., &Green, I. (1986). Individual differences in comprehending and producing words in context.Journal of Memory & Language,25, 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Daneman, M., &Merikle, P. M. (1996). Working memory and language comprehension: A meta-analysis.Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,3, 422–433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Dobbs, A. R., &Rule, B. G. (1989). Adult age differences in working memory.Psychology & Aging,4, 500–503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Dougherty, M. R. P., &Hunter, J. (2003). Probability judgment and subadditivity: The role of working memory capacity and constraining retrieval.Memory & Cognition,31, 968–982.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Ebbinghaus, H. (1897). Über eine neue Methode zur Prü fung geistiger Fähigkeiten und ihre Anwendung bei Schulkindern On a new method of testing mental abilities and its application with school children].Zeitschrift für die Psychologie,13, 401–459.Google Scholar
  32. Engle, R. W. (2001). What is working memory capacity? In H. L. Roediger, III, J. S. Nairne, I. Neath, & A. M. Surprenant (Eds.),The nature of remembering: Essays in honor of Robert G. Crowder(pp. 297–314). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Engle, R. W. (2002). Working memory capacity as executive attention.Current Directions in Psychological Science,11, 19–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Engle, R. W., Cantor, J., &Carullo, J. J. (1992). Individual differences in working memory and comprehension: A test of four hypotheses.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,18, 972–992.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Engle, R. W., Carullo, J. J., &Collins, K. W. (1991). Individual differences in working memory for comprehension and following directions.Journal of Educational Research,84, 253–262.Google Scholar
  36. Engle, R. W., Kane, M. J., &Tuholski, S. W. (1999). 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. 102–134). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Engle, R. W., Tuholski, S. W., Laughlin, J. E., &Conway, A. R. A. (1999). Working memory, short-term memory and general fluid intelligence: A latent variable approach.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,128, 309–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Finn, P. R. (2002). Motivation, working memory, and decision making: A cognitive-motivational theory of personality vulnerability to alcoholism.Behavioral & Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews,1, 183–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Friedman, N. P., &Miyake, A. (2004). The reading span test and its predictive power for reading comprehension ability.Journal of Memory & Language,51, 136–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hambrick, D. Z., &Engle, R. W. (2002). Effects of domain knowledge, working memory capacity, and age on cognitive performance: An investigation of the knowledge-is-power hypothesis.Cognitive Psychology,44, 339–384.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hasher, L., &Zacks, R. T. (1988). Working memory, comprehension, and aging: A review and a new view. In G. H. Bower (Ed.),The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 22, pp. 193–225). San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  42. Heitz, R. P., & Engle, R. W. (2004).Focusing the spotlight: Individual differences in visual attention control. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
  43. 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, 184–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Hutton, U. M. Z., &Towse, J. N. (2001). Short-term memory and working memory as indices of children’s cognitive skills.Memory,9, 383–394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 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
  46. 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, & Cognition,26, 333–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 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 & Review,9, 637–671.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Kane, M. J., &Engle, R. W. (2003). Working-memory capacity and the control of attention: The contributions of goal neglect, response competition, and task set to Stroop interference.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,132, 47–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 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 visuo-spatial memory span and reasoning.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,133, 189–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Kiewra, K. A., &Benton, S. L. (1988). The relationship between information processing ability and notetaking.Contemporary Educational Psychology,13, 33–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. King, J., &Just, M. A. (1991). Individual differences in syntactic processing: The role of working memory.Journal of Memory & Language,30, 580–602.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Kirchner, W. K. (1958). Age differences in short-term retention of rapidly changing information.Journal of Experimental Psychology,55, 352–358.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Klein, K., &Boals, A. (2001). The relationship of life event stress and working memory capacity.Applied Cognitive Psychology,15, 565–579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Klein, K., &Fiss, W. H. (1999). The reliability and stability of the Turner and Engle working memory task.Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers,31, 429–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Kline, R. B. (1998).Principles and practice of structural equation Modeling. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  56. Kyllonen, P. C. (1996). Is working memory capacity Spearman’s g? In I. Dennis & P. Tapsfield (Eds.),Human abilities: Their nature and Measurement (pp. 49–75). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  57. Kyllonen, P. C., &Christal, R. E. (1990). Reasoning ability is (little more than) working-memory capacity?!Intelligence,14, 389–433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Kyllonen, P. C., &Stephens, D. L. (1990). Cognitive abilities as determinants of success in acquiring logic skill.Learning & Individual Differences,2, 129–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Lehto, J. (1996). Are executive function tests dependent on working memory capacity?Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,49A, 29–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Lustig, C., May, C. P., &Hasher, L. (2001). Working memory span and the role of proactive interference.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,130, 199–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. MacDonald, M. C., Almor, A., Henderson, V. W., Kempler, D., &Andersen, E. S. (2001). Assessing working memory and language comprehension in Alzheimer’s disease.Brain & Language,78, 17–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Mackworth, J. F. (1959). Paced memorizing in a continuous task.Journal of Experimental Psychology,58, 206–211.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. May, C. P., Hasher, L., &Kane, M. J. (1999). The role of interference in memory span.Memory & Cognition,27, 759–767.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Miyake, A., Friedman, N. P., Rettinger, D. A., Shah, P., &Hegarty, M. (2001). How are visuospatial working memory, executive functioning, and spatial abilities related? A latent-variable analysis.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,130, 621–640.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Moore, M. E., &Ross, B. M. (1963). Context effects in running memory.Psychological Reports,12, 451–465.Google Scholar
  66. Morris, N., &Jones, D. M. (1990). Memory updating in working memory: The role of the central executive.British Journal of Psychology,81, 111–121.Google Scholar
  67. Munakata, Y., Morton, B., & O’Reilly, R. C. O. (in press). Developmental and computational approaches to variation in working memory. In A. R. A. Conway, gnC. Jarrold, M. J. Kane, A. Miyake, & J. N. Towse (Eds.),Variation in working memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  68. Nairne, J. S. (2002) Remembering over the short-term: The case against the standard model.Annual Review of Psychology,53, 53–81.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Oberauer, K., &Süß, H.-M. (2000).Working memory and interference: A comment on Jenkins, Myerson, Hale, and Fry (1999).Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,7, 727–733.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Oberauer, K., Süß, H.-M., Schulze, R., Wilhelm, O., &Wittmann, W. W. (2000). Working memory capacity: Facets of a cognitive ability construct.Personality & Individual Differences,29, 1017–1045.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Oberauer, K., Süß, H.-M., Wilhelm, O., &Wittmann, W. W. (2003). The multiple faces of working memory: Storage, processing, supervision, and coordination.Intelligence,31, 167–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Pollack, I., Johnson, L. B., &Knaff, P. R. (1959). Running memory span.Journal of Experimental Psychology,57, 137–146.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Richeson, J. A., Baird, A. A., Gordon, H. L., Heatherton, T. F., Wyland, C. L., Trawalter, S., et al.(2003). An fMRI investigation of the impact of interracial contact on executive function.Nature Neuroscience,6, 1323–1328.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Richeson, J. A., &Shelton, J. N. (2003). When prejudice does not pay: Effects of interracial contact on executive function.Psychological Science,14, 287–291.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Rosen, V. M., Bergeson, J. L., Putnam, K., Harwell, A., &Sunderland, T. (2002). Working memory and apolipoprotein E: What’s the connection?Neuropsychologia,40, 2226–2233.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. 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
  77. Rosen, V. M., &Engle, R. W. (1998). Working memory capacity and suppression.Journal of Memory & Language,39, 418–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Salthouse, T. A. (1995). Differential age-related influences on memory for verbal-symbolic and visual-spatial information?Journal of Gerontology,50B, P193-P201.Google Scholar
  79. Salthouse, T. A., Babcock, R. L., &Shaw, R. J. (1991). Effects of adult age on structural and operational capacities in working memory.Psychology & Aging,6, 118–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Schmader, T., &Johns, M. (2003). Converging evidence that stereotype threat reduces working memory capacity.Journal of Personality & Social Psychology,85, 440–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Shah, P., &Miyake, A. (1996). The separability of working memory resources for spatial thinking and language processing: An individual differences approach.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,125, 4–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Spearman, C. (1904). “General intelligence,” objectively determined and measured.American Journal of Psychology,15, 201–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Süß, H.-M., Oberauer, K., Wittmann, W. W., Wilhelm, O., &Schulze, R. (2002). Working-memory capacity explains reasoning Ability—and a little bit more.Intelligence,30, 261–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Towse, J. N., &Hitch, G. J. (1995). Is there a relationship between task demand and storage space in tests of working memory capacity?Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,48A, 108–124.Google Scholar
  85. Towse, J. N., Hitch, G. J., &Hutton, U. (1998). A reevaluation of working memory capacity in children.Journal of Memory & Language,39, 195–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Towse, J. N., Hitch, G. J., &Hutton, U. (2002). On the nature of the relationship between processing activity and item retention in children.Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,82, 156–184.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Treisman, A. M., &Gelade, G. (1980). A feature-integration theory of attention.Cognitive Psychology,12, 97–136.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Turley-Ames, K. J., &Whitfield, M. M. (2003). Strategy training and working memory task performance.Journal of Memory & Language,49, 446–468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Turner, M. L., &Engle, R. W. (1989). Is working memory capacity task dependent?Journal of Memory & Language,28, 127–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Underwood, B. J. (1975). Individual differences as a crucible in theory construction.American Psychologist,30, 128–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Unsworth, N., Heitz, R. P., &Engle, R. W. (2005). Working memory capacity in hot and cold cognition. In R. W. Engle, G. Sedek, U. Hecker, & D. N. McIntosh (Eds.),Cognitive limitations in aging and psychopathology (pp. 19–43). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Unsworth, N., Schrock, J. C., &Engle, R. W. (2004). Working memory capacity and the antisaccade task: Individual differences in voluntary saccade control.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,30, 1302–1321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Waters, G. S., &Caplan, D. (1996). The measurement of verbal working memory capacity and its relation to reading comprehension.Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,49A,51–744.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Waugh, N. (1960). Serial position and the memory-span.American Journal of Psychology,73, 68–79.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Yntema, D. B., &Mueser, G. E. (1960). Remembering the present states of a number of variables.Journal of Experimental Psychology,60, 18–22.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Yntema, D. B., &Mueser, G. E. (1962). Keeping track of variables that have few or many states.Journal of Experimental Psychology,63, 391–395.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew R. A. Conway
    • 1
  • Michael J. Kane
    • 2
  • Michael F. Bunting
    • 1
  • D. Zach Hambrick
    • 3
  • Oliver Wilhelm
    • 4
  • Randall W. Engle
    • 5
  1. 1.University of IllinoisChicago
  2. 2.University of North CarolinaGreensboro
  3. 3.Michigan State UniversityEast Lansing
  4. 4.Humboldt UniversityBerlinGermany
  5. 5.Georgia Institute of TechnologyAtlanta
  6. 6.University of MissiouriUSA
  7. 7.Department of PsychologyPrinceton UniversityPrinceton

Personalised recommendations