Helping Children with Mathematical Difficulties Level Up: Evaluating the Efficacy of a Novel Updating Training Programme

  • Su Yin Ang
  • Kerry Lee
  • Kenneth K. PoonEmail author
  • Imelda Suryadarma
Part of the Education Innovation Series book series (EDIN)


Singapore is one of the most affluent countries in the world and is ranked by international-benchmarking examinations such as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) as one of the top-performing education systems in the world (Mourshed M, Chijioke C, Barber M. How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better. McKinsey & Company, London, 2010). In its educational success, notwithstanding, there is concern of the inequality within the education system. One source of concern was raised in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report where Singapore was found to have above-average income inequality. A strong (or positive) relationship also existed between academic performance and socio-economic status (OECD. PISA 2009 results: overcoming social background. OECD Publishing, Paris, 2010). Despite a very high participation rate in kindergarten, there is also suggestion that not every child enters primary education with the same level of academic skills. Learning Support for Mathematics programme has been established within all primary schools in Singapore so that children who are screened at Primary 1 without the adequate foundational skills in math would receive specialised support (Cheam F, Chua WLJ. Early intervention for pupils at-risk of mathematics difficulties. In: Wong KY, Lee PY, Kaur B, Foong PY, Ng SF (eds) Mathematics education: the Singapore journey. World Scientific, Singapore, pp 370–386, 2009). Kaur and Ghani’s (Low attainers in primary mathematics. World Scientific, Singapore, 2012) investigation of children with poor attainments in math reported that these students were not attentive in class and easily distracted. They did not give their best when doing work and often not able to complete their work on time in class. Perhaps related to these difficulties, these pupils also lacked home support with their work, with many coming from low-income families.


  1. Abikoff, H., & Gittelman, R. (1985). Hyperactive children treated with stimulants: Is cognitive training a useful adjunct? Archives of General Psychiatry, 42(10), 953–961.Google Scholar
  2. Alloway, T. P., & Alloway, R. G. (2010). Investigating the predictive roles of working memory and IQ in academic attainment. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 106(1), 20–29.Google Scholar
  3. Alloway, T. P., Gathercole, S. E., Kirkwood, H., & Elliott, J. (2009). The cognitive and behavioral characteristics of children with low working memory. Child Development, 80(2), 606–621.Google Scholar
  4. Baddeley, A. (2000). The episodic buffer: A new component of working memory? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(11), 417–423.Google Scholar
  5. Baddeley, A., & Hitch, G. J. (1974). Working memory. In G. A. Bower (Ed.), Recent advances in learning and motivation (Vol. 8, pp. 47–90). New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  6. Bergman-Nutley, S., & Klingberg, T. (2014). Effect of working memory training on working memory, arithmetic and following instructions. Psychological Research, 78(6), 869–877.Google Scholar
  7. Bradley, R. H., & Corwyn, R. F. (2002). Socioeconomic status and child development. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 371–399.Google Scholar
  8. Bull, R., & Scerif, G. (2001). Executive functioning as a predictor of children’s mathematics ability: Inhibition, switching, and working memory. Developmental Neuropsychology, 19(3), 273–293.Google Scholar
  9. Buonomano, D. V., & Merzenich, M. M. (1998). Cortical plasticity: From synapses to maps. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 21(1), 149–186.Google Scholar
  10. Buschkuehl, M., Jaeggi, S. M., Hutchison, S., Perrig-Chiello, P., Däpp, C., Müller, M., et al. (2008). Impact of working memory training on memory performance in old-old adults. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 743–753.Google Scholar
  11. Butterfield, E. C., Wambold, C., & Belmont, J. M. (1973). On the theory and practice of improving short-term memory. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 77(5), 654–669.Google Scholar
  12. Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(3), 354–380.Google Scholar
  13. Cheam, F., & Chua, W. L. J. (2009). Early intervention for pupils at-risk of mathematics difficulties. In K. Y. Wong, P. Y. Lee, B. Kaur, P. Y. Foong, & S. F. Ng (Eds.), Mathematics education: The Singapore journey (pp. 370–386). Singapore, Singapore: World Scientific.Google Scholar
  14. Chein, J. M., & Morrison, A. B. (2010). Expanding the mind’s workspace: Training and transfer effects with a complex working memory span task. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(2), 193–199.Google Scholar
  15. Chooi, W.-T., & Thompson, L. A. (2012). Working memory training does not improve intelligence in healthy young adults. Intelligence, 40(6), 531–542. Retrieved from Scholar
  16. Dempster, F. N. (1988). The spacing effect: A case study in the failure to apply the results of psychological research. American Psychologist, 43(8), 627.Google Scholar
  17. Donovan, J. J., & Radosevich, D. J. (1999). A meta-analytic review of the distribution of practice effect: Now you see it, now you don’t. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(5), 795–805.Google Scholar
  18. Dunning, D. L., Holmes, J., & Gathercole, S. E. (2013). Does working memory training lead to generalized improvements in children with low working memory? A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Science, 16(6), 915–925.Google Scholar
  19. 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 and Cognition, 18(5), 972–992.Google Scholar
  20. Ericsson, K. A., Chase, W. G., & Faloon, S. (1980). Acquisition of a memory skill. Science, 208(4448), 1181–1182.Google Scholar
  21. Evans, G. W., & Schamberg, M. A. (2009). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(16), 6545–6549.Google Scholar
  22. Farah, M.J., Shera, D.M., Savage, J.H., Betancourt, L., Giannetta, J.M., Brodsky, N.L., et al. (2006). Childhood poverty: Specific associations with neurocognitive development. Brain Research, 1110(1), 166–174. Retrieved from Scholar
  23. Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T. P. (2008). Working memory and classroom learning. In S. K. Thurman & C. A. Fiorello (Eds.), Applied cognitive research in K–3 classrooms (pp. 17–40). New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.Google Scholar
  24. Gathercole, S. E., Brown, L., & Pickering, S. J. (2003). Working memory assessments at school entry as longitudinal predictors of National Curriculum attainment levels. Educational and Child Psychology, 20(3), 109–122.Google Scholar
  25. Gathercole, S. E., Durling, E., Evans, M., Jeffcock, S., & Stone, S. (2008). Working memory abilities and children’s performance in laboratory analogues of classroom activities. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(8), 1019–1037.Google Scholar
  26. Gathercole, S. E., & Pickering, S. J. (2000). Assessment of working memory in six- and seven-year-old children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 377–390.Google Scholar
  27. Gathercole, S. E., Pickering, S. J., Knight, C., & Stegmann, Z. (2004). Working memory skills and educational attainment: Evidence from national curriculum assessments at 7 and 14 years of age. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18(1), 1–16.Google Scholar
  28. Geary, D. C., Hoard, M. K., Bryd-Craven, K., & DeSoto, M. S. (2004). Strategy choices in simple and complex addition: Contribution of working memory and counting knowledge for children with mathematics disability. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 88(2), 121–151.Google Scholar
  29. Gibson, B. S., Gondoli, D. M., Johnson, A. C., Steeger, C., & Morrissey, R. A. (2012). The future promise of Cogmed working memory training. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(3), 214–216.Google Scholar
  30. Guralnick, M. J. (2001). A developmental systems model for early intervention. Infants & Young Children, 14(2), 1–18.Google Scholar
  31. Holmes, J., Dunning, D. L., & Gathercole, S. E. (2011). Is working memory training beneficial for everyone? Paper presented at the 2011 Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, Montreal, Canada.Google Scholar
  32. Holmes, J., & Gathercole, S. E. (2014). Taking working memory training from the laboratory into schools. Educational Psychology, 34(4), 440–450.Google Scholar
  33. Holmes, J., Gathercole, S. E., & Dunning, D. L. (2009). Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children. Developmental Science, 12(4), F9–F15.Google Scholar
  34. Holmes, J., Gathercole, S. E., Place, M., Dunning, D. L., Hilton, K. A., & Elliott, J. G. (2010). Working memory deficits can be overcome: Impacts of training and medication on working memory in children with ADHD. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(6), 827–836.Google Scholar
  35. Hosseini, S. H., Asgari, F., Rostamkhani, H., & Asghari, A. (2011). A comparison of the effects of two practice session distribution types on acquisition and retention of discrete and continuous skills. Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research, 8(1), 222–227.Google Scholar
  36. Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W. J. (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(19), 6829–6833.Google Scholar
  37. Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Shah, P. (2011). Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(25), 10081–10086.Google Scholar
  38. Janiszewski, C., Noel, H., & Sawyer, A. G. (2003). A meta-analysis of the spacing effect in verbal learning: Implications for research on advertising repetition and consumer memory. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(1), 138–149.Google Scholar
  39. Kaur, B., & Ghani, M. (2012). Low attainers in primary mathematics. Singapore, Singapore: World Scientific.Google Scholar
  40. Klingberg, T. (2010). Training and plasticity of working memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(7), 317–324.Google Scholar
  41. Klingberg, T. (2012). Is working memory capacity fixed? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(3), 194–196.Google Scholar
  42. Klingberg, T., Fernell, E., Olesen, P. J., Johnson, M., Gustafsson, P., Dahlstrom, K., et al. (2005). Computerized training of working memory in children with ADHD-A randomized, controlled trial. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 44(2), 177–186.Google Scholar
  43. Klingberg, T., Forssberg, H., & Westerberg, H. (2002). Training of working memory in children with ADHD. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 24(6), 781–791.Google Scholar
  44. Kristofferson, M. W. (1972). Effects of practice on character-classification performance. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie, 26(1), 54–60.Google Scholar
  45. Lee, K., Ng, E., & Ng, S. F. (2009). The contributions of working memory and executive functioning to problem representation and solution generation in algebraic word problems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(2), 373–387.Google Scholar
  46. Lee, K., Ng, S. F., Ng, E. L., & Lim, Z. Y. (2004). Working memory and literacy as predictors of performance on algebraic word problems. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 89(2), 140–158.Google Scholar
  47. Lee, K., Ng, S. F., Pe, M. L., Ang, S. Y., Hasshim, M. N. A. M., & Bull, R. (2012). The cognitive underpinnings of emerging mathematical skills: Executive functioning, patterns, numeracy, and arithmetic. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 82–99.Google Scholar
  48. Lee, K., & Peh, Y. X. (2008). Differences in working memory profiles amongst children with low versus average academic performances. Korean Journal of Thinking & Problem Solving, 18(1), 21–33.Google Scholar
  49. Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 270–291.Google Scholar
  50. Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97.Google Scholar
  51. Miyake, A., Friedman, N. P., Emerson, M. J., Witzki, A. H., Howerter, A., & Wager, T. D. (2000). The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex “frontal lobe” tasks: A latent variable analysis. Cognitive Psychology, 41(1), 49–100.Google Scholar
  52. Miyake, A., & Shah, P. (1999). Models of working memory: Mechanisms of active maintenance and executive control. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Morris, N., & Jones, D. M. (1990). Memory updating in working memory: The role of the central executive. British Journal of Psychology, 81(2), 111–121.Google Scholar
  54. Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., & Barber, M. (2010). How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better. London: McKinsey & Company.Google Scholar
  55. Noble, K. G., Norman, M. F., & Farah, M. J. (2005). Neurocognitive correlates of socioeconomic status in kindergarten children. Developmental Science, 8(1), 74–87.Google Scholar
  56. OECD. (2010). PISA 2009 results: Overcoming social background. Paris: OECD Publishing.Google Scholar
  57. Olesen, P. J., Westerberg, H., & Klingberg, T. (2004). Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory. Nature Neuroscience, 7(1), 75–79.Google Scholar
  58. 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(1), 44–57.Google Scholar
  59. Phillips, C. J., & Nettelbeck, T. (1984). Effects of practice on recognition memory of mildly mentally retarded adults. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 88(6), 678–687.Google Scholar
  60. Pickering, S., & Gathercole, S. E. (2001). Working memory test battery for children (WMTB-C). London: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  61. Pungello, E. P., Kupersmidt, J. B., Burchinal, M. R., & Patterson, C. J. (1996). Environmental risk factors and children’s achievement from middle childhood to early adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 32(4), 755–767.Google Scholar
  62. 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.Google Scholar
  63. Rickard Liow, S. J., & Sze, W. P. (2008). Bilingual language assessment battery (Version 1). Unpublished manuscript. National University of Singapore, Singapore.Google Scholar
  64. Schonell, F. (1942). Backwardness in the basic subjects. London: Oliver & Boyd.Google Scholar
  65. Shah, P., & Miyake, A. (1996). The separability of working memory resources for spatial thinking and language processing: An individual differences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 125(1), 4–27.Google Scholar
  66. Shipstead, Z., Hicks, K. L., & Engle, R. W. (2012a). WM training remains a work in progress. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1(3), 217–219.Google Scholar
  67. Shipstead, Z., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2012b). Is working memory training effective? Psychological Bulletin, 138(4), 628–654.Google Scholar
  68. St Clair-Thompson, H. L., & Gathercole, S. E. (2006). Executive functions and achievements in school: Shifting, updating, inhibition, and working memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59(4), 745–759.Google Scholar
  69. Thompson, T. W., Waskom, M. L., Garel, K.-L. A., Cardenas-Iniguez, C., Reynolds, G. O., Winter, R., et al. (2013). Failure of working memory training to enhance cognition or intelligence. PLoS One, 8(5), e63614.Google Scholar
  70. Thorell, L. B., Lindqvist, S., Bergman Nutley, S., Bohlin, G., & Klingberg, T. (2009). Training and transfer effects of executive functions in preschool children. Developmental Science, 12(1), 106–113.Google Scholar
  71. Van der Molen, M. J., Van Luit, J. E. H., Van der Molen, M. W., Klugkist, I., & Jongmans, M. J. (2010). Effectiveness of a computerised working memory training in adolescents with mild to borderline intellectual disabilities. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 54(5), 433–447.Google Scholar
  72. Wechsler, D. (1991). Wechsler intelligence scale for children -third edition. San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  73. Wechsler, D. (2009). Wechsler individual achievement test (3rd ed.). San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  74. Westerberg, H., & Klingberg, T. (2007). Changes in cortical activity after training of working memory – a single-subject analysis. Physiology & Behavior, 92(1–2), 186–192.Google Scholar
  75. Yntema, D. B. (1963). Keeping track of several things at once. Human Factors, 5(1), 7–17.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Su Yin Ang
    • 1
  • Kerry Lee
    • 2
  • Kenneth K. Poon
    • 3
    Email author
  • Imelda Suryadarma
    • 3
  1. 1.Ministry of Social and Family DevelopmentSingaporeSingapore
  2. 2.Centre for Brain and EducationThe Education University of Hong KongHong KongHong Kong
  3. 3.National Institute of EducationNanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore

Personalised recommendations