Learning Disabilities and Working Memory: Can IQ be changed?

Working Memory A large part of my practice involves psychoeducational assessments: measuring kids' problem-solving, working memory, and other abilities related to learning so teachers can individualize their program at school. I'm often asked whether scores on intelligence tests can be changed. I believe that experience can have an impact on IQ test performance, especially for young kids; for example, avid readers could be exposed to words and concepts that might lead to improved performance on the vocabulary portion of an intelligence test. I recently came across a study that examined the impact of working memory training on the intelligence of kids with LDs, and the results were a bit surprising.

The study by Alloway & Alloway (published in the August 2009 issue of Nature Precedings) tested the vocabulary, working memory, and school achievement of a small group of 13 year olds with LD diagnoses. They put one group of kids in an academic course aimed at improving their school performance, while the other group performed activities aimed at developing working memory. Working memory is the brain's "mental white board" - it stores information in awareness so it can be manipulated. Performing mental math calculations involves working memory, for example. The training course involved exercises such as recalling rotations of letters, or solving math equations and remembering the order of the solutions. After 8 weeks of training, the kids in the study group performed more poorly on the tests. The working memory group had stronger working memory scores, higher academic scores, and their performance improved dramatically on the intelligence measure!

This was an extremely small study that used a single test from an intelligence measure to assess intelligence. Nonetheless, the improvements in vocabulary were large, especially for a group that did not receive any extra vocabulary help. It is possible that working memory practice allows students to direct their attention more effectively, or to process information more efficiently, leading to improvements in other aspects of learning. Mental math games, and other activities requiring manipulation of information in memory, might lead to improvements in a number of areas of classroom performance; I wrote about homework strategies for kids with learning disabilities last October. I'd love to see more work on working memory training, especially to find out if the improvements last.

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor. Doctor Brian discussed kids in general in this article, but every child is unique; your experience may vary.