Strategy mediation in working memory training in younger and older adults

Alicia Forsberg, Daniel Fellmann, Matti Laine, Wendy Johnson, Robert Logie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Working Memory (WM) training with the N-Back task has been argued to improve cognitive capacity and general cognitive abilities (the Capacity Hypothesis of training), although several studies have shown little or no evidence for such improvements beyond tasks that are very similar to the trained task. Laine et al. (2018) demonstrated that instructing young adult participants to use a specific visualisation strategy for N-back training resulted in clear, generalised benefits from only 30 minutes of training (Strategy Mediation Hypothesis of training). Here, we report a systematic replication and extension of the Laine et al. (2018) study, by administering 60 younger and 60 older participants a set of WM tasks before and after a 30-minute N-back training session. Half the participants were instructed to use a visualisation strategy, the others received no instruction. The pre-post test battery encompassed a criterion task (digit N-back), two untrained tasks N-back tasks (letters and colours), and three structurally different WM tasks. The instructed visualisation strategy significantly boosted at least some measures of -back performance in participants of both age groups, although the strategy generally appeared more difficult to implement and less beneficial for older adults. However, the strategy did not improve performance on structurally different WM tasks. We also found significant associations between N-back performance and the type and level of detail of self-generated strategies in the uninstructed participants, as well as age group differences in reported strategy types. WM performance appeared to partly reflect the application of strategies, and Strategy Mediation should be considered to understand the mechanisms of WM training. Claims of efficient training should demonstrate useful improvement beyond task-specific strategies.
Original languageEnglish
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Early online date23 Apr 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Apr 2020


  • working memory
  • cognitive training
  • N-back
  • cognitive ageing

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