Education Endowment Foundation:Improving Working Memory

Improving Working Memory

Oxford University
Implementation costThe cost estimates in the Toolkits are based on the average cost of delivering the intervention.
Evidence strengthThis rating provides an overall estimate of the robustness of the evidence, to help support professional decision-making in schools.
Impact (months)The impact measure shows the number of additional months of progress made, on average, by children and young people who received the intervention, compared to similar children and young people who did not.
Project info

Independent Evaluator

Behavioural Insights Team logo
Behavioural Insights Team
NIESR logo
A small group intervention delivered by Teaching Assistants to improve working memory.
Pupils: 1475 Schools: 127 Grant: £590,000
Key Stage: 2 Duration: 3 year(s) 7 month(s) Type of Trial: Efficacy Trial
Completed May 2019

This page covers the first (efficacy) trial of Improving Working Memory. The efficacy trial is aimed at testing whether it could work in schools under best possible conditions. To read about the second (effectiveness) trial of Improving Working Memory and Arithmetic – testing a scalable model under everyday conditions in a larger number of schools – click here.

This project tested two interventions: the Improving Working Memory intervention (WM) and an adapted version, named the Working Memory Plus intervention (WM+). Both aimed to improve the numeracy skills of Year 3 pupils (aged 7 – 8) who were behind the class average in numeracy by improving their working memory: the ability to remember and manipulate information over short time-frames. Exercises included asking pupils to repeat the things they needed to remember and assigning them to one of their fingers. The WM+ intervention also included some arithmetic content alongside the working memory elements. Both interventions were delivered by teaching assistants, who received one day of training and a handbook with detailed delivery instructions, in ten one-hour sessions over one term.

The Improving Working Memory (WM) and Working Memory Plus intervention (WM+) both build on evidence from cognitive science which suggests that numeracy difficulties may be related to poor working memory capacity. The WM intervention combined training for pupils in strategies to improving working memory and time for them to practise these. The WM+ intervention covered the same material, but with less time spent on training and practising working memory strategies and more time instead on arithmetic

The independent evaluation provides evidence that both the WM and WM+ interventions had positive impacts on maths outcomes, with children in the intervention schools making the equivalent of 3 additional months’ progress in maths. These results have a high security rating. Pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) in the schools implementing the WM intervention made a small amount of additional progress in maths compared to those in the control group of schools; no impact was found for FSM-eligible pupils in the WM+ schools. These results have a lower security due to the smaller numbers of pupils

The programme does take up a significant amount of teaching assistants’ time and took them away from supporting classes. In some cases, schools needed to provide cover for the teaching assistant, which put additional demands on their resources. This is consistent with the evidence on the best use of Teaching Assistants, which shows larger impacts when they are used to deliver structured intervention than when deployed as general classroom support

The EEF is exploring the possibility of testing the WM intervention at a larger scale.

  1. Children in both the WM and WM+ schools made the equivalent of 3 additional months’ progress in maths, on average, compared to children in the business as usual control schools. These results have high security ratings.
  2. Pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) in the WM schools made a small amount of additional progress in maths compared to those in the control schools and no impact was found for FSM children in the WM+ schools. These results are of lower security than the overall findings because of the smaller number of pupils.
  3. The evaluation found positive impacts on working memory, and attention and behaviour in class for pupils receiving the interventions compared to children in comparison schools.
  4. The intervention was found to be time intensive, predominantly due to the need for TAs to leave class to deliver sessions, which increased pressure on teachers during lessons and in some cases required schools to source TA cover.
ImpactThe size of the difference between pupils in this trial and other pupils
SecurityHow confident are we in this result?
Maths (Working Memory)
Months' progress
Maths (Working Memory +)
Months' progress
Maths (FSM - Working Memory)
Months' progress
Maths (FSM - Working Memory +)
Months' progress