Meta-Analysis: Working memory training does not transfer

12 Aug

Transfer” is a term of art in educational psychology, it refers the degree to which training in one context or domain affects learning or performance in another. Advocates of various kinds of working memory training are claiming strong transfer affects. A recent meta-analytic review, published in Perspectives on Psychology Science casts doubt on those claims. Here is the abstract:

It has been claimed that working memory training programs produce diverse beneficial effects. This article presents a meta-analysis of working memory training studies (with a pretest-posttest design and a control group) that have examined transfer to other measures (nonverbal ability, verbal ability, word decoding, reading comprehension, or arithmetic; 87 publications with 145 experimental comparisons). Immediately following training there were reliable improvements on measures of intermediate transfer (verbal and visuospatial working memory). For measures of far transfer (nonverbal ability, verbal ability, word decoding, reading comprehension, arithmetic) there was no convincing evidence of any reliable improvements when working memory training was compared with a treated control condition. Furthermore, mediation analyses indicated that across studies, the degree of improvement on working memory measures was not related to the magnitude of far-transfer effects found. Finally, analysis of publication bias shows that there is no evidential value from the studies of working memory training using treated controls. The authors conclude that working memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize to measures of “real-world” cognitive skills. These results seriously question the practical and theoretical importance of current computerized working memory programs as methods of training working memory skills.

3 Responses to “Meta-Analysis: Working memory training does not transfer”

  1. Enrique Guerra-Pujol August 13, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    With a sufficient number of meta-studies in this domain, we could then conduct a meta-meta-study …

  2. jecgenovese August 13, 2016 at 4:05 pm #

    On some controversial topics one can find competing meta-analysis reaching opposite conclusions. If not for the danger of infinite regress, a meta-meta approach might be in order.


  1. Brain training increases grey matter volume | peakmemory - August 15, 2016

    […] On Friday, I reported on a meta-analysis that presented evidence that working memory brain training does not transfer to other cognitive skills. The most recent issue of Personality and Individual Differences carries a paper titled:  “Gray matter volumetric changes with a challenging adaptive cognitive training program based on the dual n-back task.” The n-back task is the most widely used procedure for working memory training in academic research. […]

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