The Roles of Visuospatial and Verbal Working Memory in Children's Mathematical Performance
The ability to mentally store and manipulate information, termed working memory (WM), is essential to mathematical performance. Yet, little research has investigated the mechanisms through which WM capacity is related to mathematical performance in children. Furthermore, the extent to which children utilize specific WM resources when executing mathematical tasks is poorly understood. Addressing these gaps, this research investigated the nature of relations between WM and children's mathematical performance. Participants were 56 second and 32 fourth grade students from public and private elementary schools. Students completed tasks measuring their visuospatial-WM and verbal-WM capacities, the strength of their spatial and symbolic representations of numerical magnitude, and arithmetic performance. Arithmetic strategies were also assessed. In a dual-task condition, children's WM resources were experimentally manipulated: children completed mathematical tasks while retaining visuospatial and verbal stimuli in memory. Results showed that the relation between visuospatial-WM capacity and arithmetic accuracy was mediated by children's spatial numeric representations and the frequency of using a decomposition strategy in solving arithmetic problems. Conversely, the relation between verbal-WM and arithmetic accuracy was mediated by the frequency of using retrieval strategies in solving arithmetic problems. Additionally, the extent to which specific WM resources were involved in children's math performance varied by math task and children's skill level. Verbal-WM resources appeared to be minimally involved in children's spatial numerical representations, but highly involved in symbolic numerical representations and arithmetic calculations. On all math tasks, visuospatial-WM resources were involved to a greater extent among highly skilled children than low-skill children. The results suggest that WM capacity might improve spatial numerical representations and lead children to use memory-based arithmetic strategies more frequently, resulting in better arithmetic performance. Regardless of WM capacity, children who heavily use visuospatial-WM resources are more successful in executing mathematical tasks than children who rely on these resources minimally. These findings contribute to our understanding of how WM can facilitate children's mathematical performance. Implications for identifying specific challenges in children's mathematical learning are discussed.