Training-induced improvement in working memory tasks results from switching to efficient strategies

Tamar Malinovitch*, Hilla Jakoby, Merav Ahissar

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


It is debated whether training with a working memory (WM) task, particularly n-back, can improve general WM and reasoning skills. Most training studies found substantial improvement in the trained task, with little to no transfer to untrained tasks. We hypothesized that training does not increase WM capacity, but instead provides opportunities to develop an efficient task-specific strategy. We derived a strategy for the task that optimizes WM resources and taught it to participants. In two sessions, 14 participants who were taught this strategy performed as well as fourteen participants who trained for 40 sessions without strategy instructions. To understand the mechanisms underlying the no-instruction group’s improvement, participants answered questionnaires during their training period. Their replies indicate that successful learners discovered the same strategy and their improvement was associated with this discovery. We conclude that n-back training allows the discovery of strategies that enable better performance with the same WM resources.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)526-536
Number of pages11
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the International Development Research Center, the Israeli Science Foundation, and the Azrieli Foundation (Grant No. 2425/15), and by a personal grant from the Israel Science Foundation (Grant No. 1650/17) and the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No 833694) and the Israel Science Foundation (Grant No. 1650/17).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, The Author(s).


  • Cognitive training
  • Human memory and learning
  • Visual working memory
  • Working memory


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