The Brighter Side of Education: Research, Innovation & Resources

Working Memory and Memory Superpowers with Psychologist Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

July 13, 2023 Dr. Lisa R. Hassler Season 1 Episode 20
Working Memory and Memory Superpowers with Psychologist Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway
The Brighter Side of Education: Research, Innovation & Resources
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The Brighter Side of Education: Research, Innovation & Resources
Working Memory and Memory Superpowers with Psychologist Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway
Jul 13, 2023 Season 1 Episode 20
Dr. Lisa R. Hassler

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In this episode, I explore the fascinating findings on working memory, its impact on academic attainment, and the promising avenues for intervention and support. How does working memory determine student success and how can it be improved? 

Over the years, studies conducted by Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway (www.tracypackiam.com)  have provided growing evidence of the significant connection between working memory and academic achievement. The capacity of an individual's working memory plays a crucial role in their ability to acquire knowledge and develop new skills. Deficits in working memory have been observed in various learning difficulties including reading disorders, math difficulties, ADHD, and motor impairments.

In fact, Alloway's large-scale screening study revealed that one in ten students experience working memory deficits, leading to below-average performance in language and math. Surprisingly, research also indicated that all components of working memory are present by the age of 4. As a result, it is vital to prioritize finding effective interventions to overcome these challenges and maximize students' learning potential.

Traditionally, working memory was believed to be genetically fixed, however, recent studies highlight the remarkable plasticity of the developing brain and suggest that working memory capacity can potentially be enhanced through environmental interventions and support.

Join us as we delve into the world of working memory and its implications for optimizing learning outcomes with Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway. She is an award-winning psychologist, professor of memory, 15 time author and Associate Editor of the Educational and Developmental Psychologist journal. Dr. Alloway has been featured on The Doctors TV, Good Morning America, the Today Show to name a few. She also consults for documentaries, ABC/NBC and the CW affiliates, AMC TV, and the World Bank. 

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Want to share a story? Email me at lisa@drlisarhassler.com.
Visit my website for resources: http://www.drlisarhassler.com

The music in this podcast was written and performed by Brandon Picciolini of the Lonesome Family Band. Visit and follow him on Instagram.

My publications:
America's Embarrassing Reading Crisis: What we learned from COVID, A guide to help educational leaders, teachers, and parents change the game, is available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and iTunes.
My Weekly Writing Journal: 15 Weeks of Writing for Primary Grades on Amazon.
World of Words: A Middle School Writing Notebook Using...

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Send us a Text Message.

In this episode, I explore the fascinating findings on working memory, its impact on academic attainment, and the promising avenues for intervention and support. How does working memory determine student success and how can it be improved? 

Over the years, studies conducted by Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway (www.tracypackiam.com)  have provided growing evidence of the significant connection between working memory and academic achievement. The capacity of an individual's working memory plays a crucial role in their ability to acquire knowledge and develop new skills. Deficits in working memory have been observed in various learning difficulties including reading disorders, math difficulties, ADHD, and motor impairments.

In fact, Alloway's large-scale screening study revealed that one in ten students experience working memory deficits, leading to below-average performance in language and math. Surprisingly, research also indicated that all components of working memory are present by the age of 4. As a result, it is vital to prioritize finding effective interventions to overcome these challenges and maximize students' learning potential.

Traditionally, working memory was believed to be genetically fixed, however, recent studies highlight the remarkable plasticity of the developing brain and suggest that working memory capacity can potentially be enhanced through environmental interventions and support.

Join us as we delve into the world of working memory and its implications for optimizing learning outcomes with Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway. She is an award-winning psychologist, professor of memory, 15 time author and Associate Editor of the Educational and Developmental Psychologist journal. Dr. Alloway has been featured on The Doctors TV, Good Morning America, the Today Show to name a few. She also consults for documentaries, ABC/NBC and the CW affiliates, AMC TV, and the World Bank. 

Support the Show.

Please subscribe and share this podcast with a friend to spread the good!
If you find value to this podcast, consider becoming a supporter with a $3 subscription. Click on the link to join: https://www.buzzsprout.com/2048018/support

To help this podcast reach others, rate and review on Apple Podcasts! Go to Library, choose The Brighter Side of Education:Research, Innovation and Resources, and scroll down to Reviews. It's just that easy. Thank you!

Want to share a story? Email me at lisa@drlisarhassler.com.
Visit my website for resources: http://www.drlisarhassler.com

The music in this podcast was written and performed by Brandon Picciolini of the Lonesome Family Band. Visit and follow him on Instagram.

My publications:
America's Embarrassing Reading Crisis: What we learned from COVID, A guide to help educational leaders, teachers, and parents change the game, is available on Amazon, Kindle, and Audible, and iTunes.
My Weekly Writing Journal: 15 Weeks of Writing for Primary Grades on Amazon.
World of Words: A Middle School Writing Notebook Using...

Click! Click! Working Memory and Memory Superpowers with Psycologist Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway


Dr. Lisa Hassler

Welcome to the brighter side of education. I am your host, Dr. Lisa Hassler, here to enlighten and brighten the classrooms in America through focused conversation on important topics in education. In each episode, I discuss problems we as teachers and parents are facing facing and what people are doing in their communities to fix it. What are the variables and how can we duplicate it to maximize student outcomes? In this episode, I explore the fascinating findings on working memory, its impact on academic attainment, and the promising avenues for intervention and support. How does working memory determine student success and how can it be improved?

Over the years, studies conducted by Dr. Tracy Pakiam Alloway have provided growing evidence of the significant connection between working memory and academic achievement. The capacity of an individual's working memory plays a crucial role in their ability to acquire knowledge and develop new skills. Deficits in working memory have been observed in various learning difficulties, including reading disorders, math difficulties, ADHD, and motor impairments. In fact, her large scale screening study revealed that one in ten students experience working memory deficits, leading to below average performance in language and math. Surprisingly, research also indicated that all components of working memory are present by the age of four.

As a result, it is vital to prioritize finding effective interventions to overcome these challenges and maximize students learning potential. Traditionally, working memory was believed to be genetically fixed. However, recent studies highlight the remarkable plasticity of the developing brain and suggest that working memory capacity can potentially be enhanced through environmental interventions and support. Join us as we delve into the world of working memory and its implications for optimizing learning outcomes with Dr. Tracy Pakiam Alloway. She is an award winning psychologist, professor of memory, 15 time author and associate editor of the Educational and Developmental Psychologist Journal. Dr. Alloway has been featured on the Doctor's TV, Good Morning America and the Today Show, to name a few. She also consults for documentaries ABC, NBC and the CW. Affiliates, AMCTV and the World Bank. Welcome to the show, Tracy.


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Lisa, thank you so much for having me. What a pleasure it is to be here.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

Can you tell us about yourself and how you came into the memory space of psychology?


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Yes. So I was doing my PhD at the University of Edinburgh in the UK in Scotland, and I was hired on as part of a government funded project. And we were working in the classroom, feet on the ground. And it was fascinating because at the time, very much like you just shared with your listeners, the idea was that working memory was fixed. And also the whole concept of working memory was a little bit more obscure. Was it memory? What did the working actually mean in front of it? There was a lot of emphasis in the classroom and in education in general, on IQ and IQ scores.

And so a big part of this research project was to peel away some layers and to really explore right when students are beginning their academic career right at kindergarten, what are the cognitive skills that they need to have in place that would set them up to be a successful learner? And so, as part of our research project, we looked at traditional cognitive measures, the standardized IQ tests like verbal IQ, speed processing, how quickly you can solve abstract problems, even phonological skills. And we looked at working memory. And one of the surprising for me at the time and key findings, was that working memory was a powerful and significant predictor of success in reading, writing and math as young as four years of age, which is when students begin their academic career in kindergarten in the UK.

But not only that, I conducted a longitudinal study, so I was able to follow these same students over a six year period, and I found that their working memory at five years of age was still predicting their academic success even six years later. This is when we controlled, or equated, if you will, other external factors like their home life, financial background opportunities, all of these other factors. When we leveled the playing field, if you will, we statistically accounted for all of these variables. We still found working memory at five years of age to be an incredibly powerful predictor of educational success.

And so that's really what got me interested, but a kind of sidebar, if you will. If I can just take a minute here is that the exciting thing for me as a researcher was that working memory was found to be culture fair. And what I mean by that is that a lot of my own research as well as colleagues around the world have found that working memory was not connected to a home economic background. Things that we do know are very strongly linked to IQ scores. Working memory was not affected by that. It wasn't affected by the culture that the students were coming from.

Again, we know that there's published research that ethnic background, cultural background impacts IQ, but it was not having that same impact on working memory. So it was almost like we were discovering this potential, this cognitive potential that seemed relatively protected from a lot of these external variables, like financial background, cultural background, and so on. So for me as a researcher, it was very exciting to see that we could find out how these students would perform outside and independent of external factors that may potentially prohibit or hamper some of their learning opportunities.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

Yeah, that really is exciting because a lot of them do go back to those roots, and then we always see how they kind of like subcategorize out to say, "this for this group, this for this group." And so to find something that removes that, that is fascinating. That's quite a breakthrough. Now, you've published over 100 studies, and some of which I referenced at the introduction and I know you were just talking about some of those studies as well. Can you discuss some of your key findings in regard to working memory, starting with what working memory is?


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Yes, such a great question. I should have started with that before jumping right in. I got too excited there. But you can think of working memory as your active memory. It's the memory you're using at the moment. So when you're having a conversation that's your working memory in use. You're taking information from what you know, what your long term memory is, what knowledge do you have on the topic and you're keeping it in a kind of active workspace. You're listening, you're trying to engage and synthesize information that you know with information you're receiving. It is limited in capacity.

So I like to use the image of a post-it note as a good visual for what working memory is. It's a small space. We use it at the moment. And once we're done with that conversation, our working memory kind of deactivates, if you will. We're not using it all the time.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

So some of the things I was looking at your website, your website is amazing, by the way. Your research is on there and you talk about how one in ten students have a low working memory. Can you talk about that? I was surprised by that, yes.


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

So this was another government funded project that I was leading and we had tested close to 4000 students as young as we tested them at different age points, one at five and six, and then another at the ten year old bracket. And we found that, again, independent of their traditional IQ measures, again talking about verbal and nonverbal IQ, we found that one in ten students would struggle with poor working memory, but often that would get misdiagnosed. A student, a teacher might view a student with poor working memory as being maybe inattentive. So it may get lumped in with a behavioral need or behavioral challenge.

They may view the student as even lazy. I've heard teachers make that comment that a student is lazy or not trying hard, or not motivated, or simply not putting forward the effort, when in fact it's not a lack of effort problem, it's a lack of space or capacity. That post it note that we talked about isn't able to keep everything in place while the teacher is providing information on that lesson.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

And so early interventions, early detection is really important then.


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

I did find that in my own research. A lot of what I've been talking about too is based on my longitudinal research. So we're following these same students over time and we do see that these students have insight into their own learning difficulties, even as young as five or six. So they will know that they're struggling and it can lead not just to academic difficulties, but even self esteem issues. And some students would comment that they would begin to feel a lack of sense of self esteem when it came to what they could achieve their ability, so not their social self esteem or their performance self esteem.

And so we were able to track and measure self esteem in different areas. And these students were beginning to get the sense of learned helplessness that we talk about, maybe in the mental health, where they feel like, why should I try? I'm going to fail. And we've heard students echo those same statements that it's no point, I might as well just not bother. I'll disengage. And so to your point, Lisa, early intervention is especially crucial because we don't want them to disengage from the education system.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

You have authored 15 books, and your most recent is Think Like a Girl, which I have two of. So I'm so excited for my daughters to read them. I think it's the perfect age. They're 20 and 22. And so I'm really excited about them being able to think about their own thinking. You also have several working memory nonfiction books for adults and a children's series focused on working memory and the memory superpowers of children with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and anxiety. Now, I'd like to discuss the children's books. I have seven children, and some of which fall into all of these diagnoses. So I'm really impressed with the balance that you've developed between the main characters realistic struggles and their strengths. Can you describe your superhero stories and their intended purpose?


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Yes, as you mentioned, Lisa, a lot of my research has focused on working memory, and the books that I've written are geared to educators and to parents as well, as I have children of my own. And I began to recognize that who was telling their stories, who was kind of filling in the gap for them. And part of my research also involved observing students in the classroom, having conversations with them, and also listening to parents share their stories of their children that have learning needs. And I wanted to be able to communicate and create characters that they could identify with, but not just characters that were struggling, but that could also embrace their strengths.

And rightly so. The education system is set up to support areas of deficits or weakness, that kind of intervention approach which is needed. But for the children, sometimes that can feel paralyzing that that label becomes their identity. And I wanted to create a different narrative for them of their strengths. And I saw that in my research, that while they do have deficits, not just their core deficits, whether it's attention and so on, but they had memory strengths as well. And I wanted to bring that out in the stories. And so I have four books, one, as you mentioned, for each of those learning needs.

And not only does it take the character on a journey of acknowledging their learning needs, but I also wanted to celebrate their strengths. And I wanted to create a character that other students, their peers, could look at and could say, oh, now I understand why, Johnny, why they do that. It's not because they're trying to be different or fill in the gap annoying or whatever the words use on the playground. I wanted them to get a little insight into how their classmates were and how their brain was working and to be able to, if not embrace, at the very least, accept those strengths that the students have.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

I find that people are very empathetic towards others when they find that it's something that may be out of their control or it's just something that is part of them. And if they understand that it's not something intentional or that they struggle with that, they really become very empathetic and develop a stronger relationship because they understand. And so giving children the information really does empower them also to be making good choices about how they're treating others if they understand the whole picture. And now have you received any feedback from children who've read these stories?


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Yeah, it's been amazing. And really just some of them bring tears to my eyes because I've had everyone from parents to grandparents to aunt say, finally a book for that's my daughter, that's my son. Especially for the ADHD one, I intentionally chose a female character because as I'm sure you know and your listeners are aware, that ADHD diagnosis tends to fall predominantly male, two to one, males to females. And so females often get undiagnosed or even misdiagnosed, and it tends to put them at higher risk for mental health disorders like anxiety and depression as they get older.

And I wanted to be able to create a female character that has inattentive behaviors, but also to channel that creativity, that excitement about that kind of hyper focus and how that can play out in a very fun, positive way in a young female character. And so that especially I get a lot of positive feedback. The autism book I get a lot of feedback from too. It's a young boy. And that hyper focus, that long term memory strength really comes into play in the story. And I really liked what you said about the understanding and insight that their peers can have.

And I think that links into even the moral development of children. They have a very strong sense of fair or not fair at a young age. And so for them, they may perceive behaviors from their peers with learning needs as unfair or wrong because they don't have that insight. And so again, being able to look behind, kind of look under the cap, what's happening in their brain lets them it's not that they're behaving in an unfair way, it's just how their brain works. And they're not intending harm or they're not intending any ill will towards them.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

So how do you recommend teachers and parents use the books?


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

At the end of each book, I have some questions at talking points that parents can talk through with the children either about the character itself, like what's happening here with the young girl with ADHD. Why do you think she's doing that? So it offers a nice insight for the children to unpack the story. And then they're also easy memory tips. So if you want to have a super memory like the characters, the parents can kind of talk through, they're all science based and research based tips. If you want to have a super long term memory or kind of like a student with autism, here's what you can do to practice or train that.

So there's two parts to it. One, get insight into that behavior, and the second is to kind of have the super memory power, too.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

You have two memory tip books as well for children. Was it, How Can I Remember All That, and Remember Ten with Explorer Ben. Okay, so those are similar, not superpower necessarily, but more tips.


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Yes. So, How Can I Remember All That is written for the adolescent age groups Whereas the superpower book is more geared for the K through second graders. They're younger. Illustrations are really cute. Not done by me. The illustrator is incredibly talented. But how can I remember that? Again, is from that adolescent perspective, saying, hey, why am I struggling with lots of tips that they can do themselves? And Remember Ten is geared again for a younger population. Again, that K through 2nd 3rd grade, and I was a consultant. So it's a memory, a fun memory tip book.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

So then the other ones: The Map Challenge for Dyslexia, the Classroom Mystery for ADHD, the Perfect Project, autism and the Playground Problem for anxiety. Those books, what age are those geared towards?


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Yeah, so they're written for the kindergarten to second- third grade.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

All right, well, do you have any other resources people can refer to for more information about memory tips? I know you have some adult nonfiction books, right? What would be a good one?


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

I have a Training Your Brain. That's part of the four dummies series that's on Amazon. Lots of great tips from problem solving, memory tips, thinking faster, everything that's memory related immediately, as well as tangentially. And it's written in the For Dummies style. It's part of their series. So that's a fun, easy read.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

I'll have to get that one. I saw you have one, Understanding Working Memory. Is that another good one?


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Yes. So I do have classroom based books for educators. The one you just mentioned has a chapter for each learning need dyslexia, ADHD, Autism.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

Oh, nice.


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

And it talks about specifically the memory profile in that learning need, as well as targeted memory strategies that you can do in the classroom or parents can.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

Do if they're homeschooling. So now you created, also an app. I'm very excited about this one. It's called AWMA. So Alloway Working Memory Assessment. Was this related to your 2013 study by any chance, the Computerized Working Memory Training, Can it lead to gains in cognitive skills in students? I saw that and I was like, "is this a result of that?"


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Actually, the app was a result of a test I published with Pearson Education, the publishing company. They published two of my tests. One is the AWMA, and that was translated into 20 different languages. And they also published a working memory rating scale for teachers to use in the classroom. So they're Pearson, when you buy educational tests or psychological tests, you have different levels of purchasing based on your qualification. So educators can purchase the rating scale much like an ADHD checklist and so on. It, again, was based on government funded research. We interviewed parents, teachers, and so on.

But the app was based also on what I worked together with Pearson, and I was able to buy back my rights for the cognitive assessment because I really wanted it to be more accessible.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

Rather than I don't just tied into a curriculum.


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Yeah. And so the app has standard scores. It's all standardized from as young as five up to 70 years of age. It gives you a score on your memory, short term memory, as well as working memory, auditory, so you listen to sounds, you see how many you can remember, and visual memory. And again, all of this is science based. A lot of it is published research that you can see on my website as well, but started off as a collaboration with Pearson, and I wanted to make it more accessible. And then on the back end, there are 50 tips.

That's 50 based on your five senses. That's all based on your senses. So a quick one for your listeners is taste. Chewing peppermint gum improves working memory, and this is based on research. In part, the chewing sends blood flow to your prefrontal cortex, the home of working memory. And the peppermint is known to increase the memory neurotransmitter acetic colon. So that's a fun little memory tip that shows up in the app. Another one for smell is rosemary oil. And again, that's based research. But if you put that in a diffuser, you see immediate benefits because it again works with your memory neurotransmitter aceticolon.

So if you're studying and you need to remember something, have a bit of rosemary oil in a diffuser while you're learning new information.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

Oh, my gosh, I love that. We used to give the kids, when we did our yearly standardized testing, and so the school would give them like, peppermints, the big puffy peppermints, and the kids would suck on those. And I know we let them bring gum to school. It was the only time they could chew gum. We didn't do the peppermint gum, though, but together it would have been amazing! It always makes sense to me now! Okay, that's good. For my last question, I'd like to end with your professional advice. So what can teachers and parents do to help children improve their working memory?


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

Yeah, I would say to answer your question, two tips. One is habit based and one is game based. For game based, even quick games, it's called a fluency task. And parents can do this in a car. You say, "Hey, we have 30 seconds, list as many animals as you can think of." And again, this is based on research and it facilitates the connection between your working memory and your long term memory. So this is actually used as a test for aging to identify sometimes when we don't you hear use it or lose it. And here's where it comes to play.

When we don't continually access information from our long term memory, we have word finding difficulties. You kind of think, "Oh, what was that thing?" And you kind of lose the word. And so fluency games are a fun quick way to do that and it doesn't take any effort. You can kind of do it at the start of a class, say "Hey, okay everyone, we've got 1 minute." You can play around with the time, you can play around with the categories, you can make them broad like animals, you can make them narrow to make it more challenging like animals at a zoo or a farm.

So that would be a fun way to kind of keep using your memory in a fun way. You can even do things like if you're on a road trip, say aloud colors of a car and then take a break and say them backwards. So that uses your working memory. So you may say blue, red, white, gray. Now say those four in backwards order and that's when you're using your working memory.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

Oh my God, I need to do that.


Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway

That would be a fun, easy thing to do. You can, as I said, do it anywhere. It took less than a minute just to do that. Another, the habit based example would be to create positive habits. Food is a good example. So again, this shows up in my app. There's lots of research to show that even eating blueberries, for example, improves working memory. And this is true across the lifespan, not just for children and for students. Things like dark chocolate also improves working memory functioning even up to 2 hours of eating it. So if you like to make hot chocolate instead of using a packet, maybe melt some 70% dark chocolate with your favorite liquid, whether it's oat milk, normal milk, whatever or water and just that as well.

So creating habits that can improve your working memory are also a good way to build it on a more long term basis.


Dr. Lisa Hassler

Oh my gosh, there's so many good tips here. I have so many things to do. I'm going to run and go get that dark chocolate bar right now and a couple of blueberries. I'm on it! Well, thank you so much for joining me today to discuss how working memory impacts student learning and what we can do to enhance it. To learn more about Dr. Tracy Packium Alloway and working memory, go to tracypackiam.com. That's Tracypackiam.com. You can read her research and see her publications. I did, all fascinating information. So much good stuff there.

The call to action is twofold. First, diagnose working memory impairments early and use brain training to improve working memory. Second, empower your child that has learning difficulties to find their superpower.

If you have a story about what's working in your schools that you'd like to share, you can email me at drlisarichardsonhassler@gmail.com or visit my website at www.drlisarhassler.com and send me a message. If you like this podcast, subscribe and tell a friend. The more people that know, the bigger impact it will have. And if you find value to the content in this podcast, consider becoming becoming a supporter by clicking on the supporter link in the show notes.

It is the mission of this podcast to shine light on the good in education so that it spreads effecting positive change. So let's keep working together to find solutions that focus on our children's success.



Working Memory Research
About Dr. Tracy Packiam Alloway
Why Memory Research?
What is Working Memory & Key Research Findings
Children's Book Series: Memory Superpowers!
Training Your Brain Books for Adults
AWMA App: Working Memory Training
Two Things Teachers and Parents Can Do
Call to Action

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