New EEF trial results: +3 months’ boost for primary pupils’ maths results

Teaching primary pupils strategies to support their working memory and getting them to practise these by playing online games can boost their maths results by the equivalent of an additional three months, according to new research published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today.

127 primary schools took part in the trial of Improving Working Memory, a programme delivered by a team from the University of Oxford and designed to improve maths skills in year 3 pupils (7-8 year-olds).

The programme builds on evidence from cognitive science which suggests difficulties getting to grips with maths can be down to poor working memory, which is the ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind while you use it to finish a task. For example, this could be how many numbers you can keep in your mind at the same time to complete a mental arithmetic task.

The schools taking part in the EEF trial were asked to identify seven- and eight-year olds who were struggling with their maths. Over the course of a term, these pupils took part in 10 one-hour sessions delivered by teaching assistants (TAs) outside the classroom. The TAs worked with the pupils to teach them different strategies to help them retain information in their working memory. These included repeating the things they needed to remember and assigning them to one of their fingers.

The pupils practised using these strategies through games, which they played at school through guided practice with a TA, and through online games, which they played independently. In one computer game, pupils had to count animals while ignoring ‘gremlins’. At the end of each round pupils had to recall the number of animals of each species – like ducks or monkeys – that they had counted.

This trial tested two versions of the intervention: the Improving Working Memory intervention and an adapted version, Working Memory Plus. The Working Memory Plus intervention followed the same format as the Improving Working Memory intervention, but only five of the 10 sessions were focused on working memory, while the other five were focused on arithmetic content.

The independent evaluation by a team of researchers from the Behavioural Insights Team and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) found that pupils who received either version of the intervention made the equivalent of 3 additional months’ progress in maths, on average, compared to a similar group of pupils in schools who were not offered the intervention. These findings – which have a very high level of security – suggest that focusing on working memory can be an effective way to boost maths skills for primary school pupils. The evaluation also found positive impacts on attention and behaviour in class for pupils receiving the interventions.

The children eligible for free school meals (FSM) in the Working Memory group made one additional month’s progress in maths compared to similar pupils in the schools who were not offered the intervention. However, FSM-eligible pupils in the Working Memory Plus group made no more progress than a similar group of pupils. These results have a lower security rating because of the smaller number of pupils.

These findings build on a large body of research by the EEF that finds that, when deployed to deliver targeted interventions in one-to-one or small group settings, teaching assistants can help deliver as much as an extra term’s learning to pupils. Earlier research had suggested schools struggle to train and support teaching assistants in ways that make a difference to pupils’ attainment.

The EEF is exploring the possibility of testing Improving Working Memory at a larger scale.

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), said:

Many pupils struggle with maths anxiety from a young age which can hold back their learning. Often this is linked to their working memory and how well they can do sums in their head. Those who fall behind usually struggle to catch-up with their classmates later in school, so it’s important that schools and teachers have access to evidence-based programmes and resources to support those children falling behind. In our trial, pupils played online games that aimed to improve their maths skills by developing their working memory. The independent evaluation found that the pupils that took part made three months more progress than those who did now. This tells us that it could be a good way for schools to help struggling pupils catch-up with their classmates.

Also published today are the independent evaluations of two other EEF trials: