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Rural, Urban Students in Poverty Show Different Working Memory Problems

By guest blogger Sarah Sparks. Cross-posted from Inside School Research.

Students in poverty have been repeatedly shown to have poorer working memory than higher income students, but those working memory problems seem to differ between students in rural and urban poverty.

In a study in the Journal of Cognition and Development, Michele Tine, an assistant education professor and principal investigator in the Poverty and Learning Lab at Dartmouth, gave a series of tests of verbal and visual-spatial working memory to 186 6th graders in three low-income rural schools, one low-income urban school, and one high-income school each in rural and urban areas.

Higher-income rural and urban students performed about equally well in verbal and visual-spatial memory tasks, at about the 60th percentile. However, while students in urban poverty performed at just below the 40th percentile in both verbal and spatial working memory, students in rural poverty performed better in verbal-memory tasks--at the 45th percentile--and significantly worse in visual-spatial working memory, at the 29th percentile. "I was surprised to see the visual spatial weakness in the rural population," Tine said. "It's exciting to me because there's so little comparative work looking at rural versus urban poverty."

Prior research has suggested that verbal working memory can be critical to students learning to read and understand new concepts, and visual-spatial working memory skills have been found to predict later math performance.

Tine suggested rural students may have to navigate less-complex spatial environments, leading to weaker spatial memory, but the causes of the differences aren't clear. For the urban students, which included a higher percentage of minority students, Tine suggested stereotype threats may create more severe problems for verbal working memory than visuospatial working memory.

"When you have enough money to get by and not have money be a stressor in your life ... there's a buffer on the amount of impact the environment can have on your cognitive ability and development," she said. "For students in poverty, you don't have that resilience buffer to your environment."

The differences in the rural and urban student populations make it impossible to determine causes for the differences found in the study; for example, while 96 percent of the rural students were white, a third of students in the high-income urban and nearly two-thirds of those in the low-income urban schools were of other races. While Tine said she planned to do additional studies looking at differences in working memory profiles of rural and urban students at kindergarten and high school, she does not plan to repeat this study to match student populations.

"I'm less interested in doing [replication] than in the big picture of how to come up with interventions that serve these different communities in the best way possible," she said.

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