According to a new study, researchers demonstrated that when participants are taught an effective strategy for a working memory training task, they quickly improve their performance in the same way as those who have undergone typical working memory training without strategy instructions for a month or longer. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The significance of strategies was evident also in the controls who did not receive any strategy advice: use of self-generated strategies was associated with better working memory task performance at post-test. These results suggest that a significant part of working memory training effects is a result of a fast development of task-specific strategies during training rather than an increase in working memory capacity as was originally believed.

This can make understand that about any substantial effects of typical working memory training are limited to the trained task and its untrained variants. There are many commercial working memory training programs available, but unfortunately the training effects do not generalize much beyond tasks that are like the trained ones.

The study participants were 116 Finnish adults who were randomized into three groups. The first group received a short strategy instruction and trained a working memory updating task for half an hour. The second group performed the same computerized training session without any strategy advice.

The third group participated only in the pre- and post-test. Self-generated strategies were probed with questionnaires at the post-test. The study was conducted in the BrainTrain project at the Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland, and it was financed by the Åbo Akademi University Endowment and the Academy of Finland.

In conclusion, the present study results shed light on the mechanisms of WM training by indicating that participants’ strategies, be they external or internal, play an important role in WM training outcomes. This is in line with the Strategy Mediation hypothesis (strategy employment can make the use of limited WM capacity more effective) rather than the Capacity hypothesis.

This study focused on the early stages of training, future research should consider the evolvement of strategies and their relationships to WM performance measures over a longer term. If the Strategy Mediation hypothesis will gain further support, it could be time for a new strategy-based focus on memory training, bringing it back to its roots in mnemonics.