Open Access Highly Accessed Study protocol

Can improving working memory prevent academic difficulties? a school based randomised controlled trial

Gehan Roberts125*, Jon Quach12, Lisa Gold3, Peter Anderson25, Field Rickards6, Fiona Mensah245, John Ainley7, Susan Gathercole8 and Melissa Wake125

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Community Child Health, Royal Children's Hospital, Parkville, Australia

2 Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, Parkville, Australia

3 Deakin Health Economics, Deakin University, Australia

4 Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics Unit, Royal Children's Hospital, Parkville, Australia

5 Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia

6 Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne, Australia

7 Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne, Australia

8 MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, UK

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BMC Pediatrics 2011, 11:57  doi:10.1186/1471-2431-11-57

Published: 20 June 2011



Low academic achievement is common and is associated with adverse outcomes such as grade repetition, behavioural disorders and unemployment. The ability to accurately identify these children and intervene before they experience academic failure would be a major advance over the current 'wait to fail' model. Recent research suggests that a possible modifiable factor for low academic achievement is working memory, the ability to temporarily store and manipulate information in a 'mental workspace'. Children with working memory difficulties are at high risk of academic failure. It has recently been demonstrated that working memory can be improved with adaptive training tasks that encourage improvements in working memory capacity. Our trial will determine whether the intervention is efficacious as a selective prevention strategy for young children at risk of academic difficulties and is cost-effective.


This randomised controlled trial aims to recruit 440 children with low working memory after a school-based screening of 2880 children in Grade one. We will approach caregivers of all children from 48 participating primary schools in metropolitan Melbourne for consent. Children with low working memory will be randomised to usual care or the intervention. The intervention will consist of 25 computerised working memory training sessions, which take approximately 35 minutes each to complete. Follow-up of children will be conducted at 6, 12 and 24 months post-randomisation through child face-to-face assessment, parent and teacher surveys and data from government authorities. The primary outcome is academic achievement at 12 and 24 months, and other outcomes include child behaviour, attention, health-related quality of life, working memory, and health and educational service utilisation.


A successful start to formal learning in school sets the stage for future academic, psychological and economic well-being. If this preventive intervention can be shown to be efficacious, then we will have the potential to prevent academic underachievement in large numbers of at-risk children, to offer a ready-to-use intervention to the Australian school system and to build international research partnerships along the health-education interface, in order to carry our further studies of effectiveness and generalisability.