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Symphony of the mind

Evan Copello (and Dr. Tracy Alloway discuss research tactics research subject looks on

There’s one memory in her 15-year voyage of research, analysis and mental exploration that Dr. Tracy Alloway often revisits.


The moment she met Andrew.


Back then, the University of North Florida assistant psychology professor was a young researcher assigned to a government project studying academic success rates among kindergarten students. Andrew was a livewire six-year-old with a penchant for sharing stories with his peers. He also had a tough time remembering simple instructions.


She didn’t realize it at the time, but that energetic kindergartner held the key to unlocking the secret of working memory, a revelation that would ultimately shape the course of her professional career and positively impact the lives of scores of young students.


Alloway uses the image of the brain as a classical music conductor to explain working memory in layman’s terms. Much like how the conductor directs different instrumentalists to unite in harmonious tone, working memory combines different learned facts and points of interest to create a logical flow of information. Her research has shown that this mental processing and intermingling of information is the main characteristic that defines a young student’s ability to learn.


“Memory measures what you do with what you know,” Alloway said. “And in that sense, working memory is the equalizer. It levels the playing field, and if we can address that for students who are struggling, then we can help them before it becomes too tough to manage.”

That brings her back to Andrew. Despite his creative mind and desire to succeed in the classroom, Andrew posted sub-par grades and often appeared inattentive or disinterested in the classroom. His IQ scores were average, but he still remained in the bottom quarter of his class for performance. That’s when she expanded her analysis to include working memory, a change that helped illustrate the depths of Andrew’s struggles.


His scores lagged well beyond his peers on the Automated Working Memory Assessment, a PC-based test of working memory skills that Alloway designed. In additional student analyses, a trend arose that was repeated with dozens of other kindergartners — the lower the working memory score, the lower the test scores. That phenomenon held up even when controlled for IQ scores. Her research allowed her to predict with 95 percent accuracy the success rates of students from kindergarten to sixth grade.


“The pattern is consistent,” she said. “Longitudinally, even after following up six years later, poor working memory is the major determinant for poor learning outcomes.”


Even after introducing different student groups, such as gifted students or children with learning disabilities, her working memory findings hold up. And academics across the globe have taken notice.


A prolific author, Alloway has published more than 80 academic papers and six books, most of them pertaining to working memory. The sheer breadth of her academic publishing has gained her a bit of a fan club in the international psychology scene. In March, a delegation of Japanese researchers flew to Jacksonville to learn more about working memory during a workshop at UNF.  They even had a copy of one of her books translated to Japanese.


Other academics have integrated Alloway’s working memory research into their own classrooms. Kimberly Phillips Grant, a school psychologist from a suburban school district in Kansas who was inspired by Alloway’s work, applied for and received a grant to purchase assessment and intervention tools to support students with working memory impairments. One young student struggling with memory issues, John, was used as a case study. During the course of a two-year period, Grant used techniques taught by Alloway to boost John’s working memory capacity to great effect.


“John has responded well to the accommodations and is managing grade-level course work without a need for specialized instruction,” Grant wrote in the epilogue to Alloway’s book, “Understanding Working Memory.”


Much like Andrew before him, John’s academic life was set back on track thanks to the intervention of working memory research. And Grant has introduced more and more students in her school district to those working memory assessments in the hopes of saving them from years of academic difficulties. 


Alloway’s UNF undergraduate students have also been major benefactors of her research. A number of them have written papers with Alloway on working memory or contributed case studies to books that have allowed them to leave the University with prestigious publishing credentials. 


One of her research assistants, John Horton, graduated in 2012 but is continuing at UNF for his master’s degree, thanks in large part to the inspiration he received under Alloway’s tutelage. He co-authored a paper with her on whether Facebook use in high school students is linked to good grades. It was published in the academic journal Computers & Education.


“I loved doing the work,” Horton said. “It was very difficult, and I had to sacrifice a lot, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. It showed me that I am capable of doing more than I thought that I could— and that I can do proper, quality work to boot.”


Evan Copello, a spring 2014 graduate, was recently accepted into the psychology graduate program at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. He credits his work with Alloway, which included writing a chapter for her book “Understanding Working Memory,” for helping him land a prestigious graduate post abroad.


“I’m not being dramatic when I say that my work with Dr. Alloway changed my life forever,” Copello said. “I co-authored eight papers, one book chapter and have partaken in four speaking presentations, all of which pertained to working memory research. I have already begun to build a promising career as an academic researcher, and that’s due directly to the opportunity she gave me as an undergraduate.”

Alloway has spread the working memory message to nearly every corner of the globe, but her work continues. She said she pulls her inspiration from her own memories of Andrew, the imaginative young boy who she was determined to not let slip through the academic cracks. She plans to continue publishing and presenting on working memory and hopes other schools across the country adopt her Automated Working Memory Assessment test as the school district in Kansas did.


“Students like Andrew, they’re not isolated cases,” she said. “I’ve received e-mails from parents all over the country who have children with normal IQs and weak working memories who are struggling in school. My dream is for every school to put together strategic plans on integrating working memory research. There are many out there who can really benefit from this research. No student is a lost cause.”