Programs designed to enhance Cognitive Processing Skills: the Eaton Arrowsmith Project

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Langara College Counselling Department. The below article summarizes the findings of Ingrid Wickelgren as reported in in the Winter 2015 Special Collector’s edition of Scientific American Mind (citation of the article is provided in “references” below). Wickelgren has provided a concise overview of research in the emerging field of computer-based training for the enhancement of learning skills.


The Eaton Arrowsmith School Project housed on the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC) is designed to assist school-age children facing challenges such as ADD/ADHD, dyscalculia, and dyslexia. Perhaps the most intriguing observation by Wickelgren is that:

Scientists have concocted mental fitness regimens to strengthen weak thinking skills in students – in effect, making kids smarter” [2015, p.85]

The program however has been questioned with respect to its efficacy, as will be discussed towards the end of this article. The key question is how effective the same “mental fitness regimens” could be with respect to post-secondary learners? While this cohort has not been discussed by Wickelgren, a number of her observations of the Eaton Arrowsmith-UBC project (henceforth referred to as EA) are notable, with possible potential applications for post-secondary settings.

What is interesting about EA is that students are not provided with tutoring on typical subjects such as history, literature, etc. Instead they are exposed to what Wickelgren characterizes as “brain remediation” and “brain fitness” programs designed for the enhancement of working memory, sound perception (esp. for phonological coding in reading) number sense (for maths), and even reasoning abilities. The very paradigm of the EA program challenges the traditional notion of abilities such as working memory, reasoning, number sense, etc. being “fixed” for life. Thanks to more recent findings by a new generation of scholars in the learning/cognitive sciences, there is a shift toward what can be termed as the “Growth Mind-set” – see for example “Focusing on Learning Process versus “Ability” for Success” (pdf also available in

As noted by learning disabilities specialist Howard Eaton (founder of Eaton Arrowsmith or EA):

The question is: what are we capable of as human beings? [the notion that people can fundamentally alter brains] changes your whole perspective on human possibility” [as cited by Wickelgren, 2015, p.86]

What are the Key Executive Functions?

In what can be characterized as a possible paradigm shift in the field of cognitive support studies, is the notion that all students can benefit from “brain remediation” and “brain fitness” programs. As noted by Allyson P. Mackey (Massachusetts Institute of Technology):

I see the technology as making it possible to individualize training and learning for everybody … Even kids performing fairly well might have a weakness, and if you patch that up, they would perform much better ”  [as cited by Wickelgren, 2015, p.85]

The content of this article leads to the need to distinguish between the process of learning versus one’s capacity to learn. With respect to the process of learning it has generally been agreed upon that the human brain is flexible in the acquisition of new skills and knowledge, a process that can instill changes at the neuronal level. However when it comes to learning capacity, the common consensus has been that this is a stable trait. Specifically this “capacity” is a set of executive functions that include:

  • Working Memory (WM): the “mental scratch pad” capable of holding 7+2 pieces of information. WM is critical to the learner’s attention span. As noted by Torkel Klingberg (cognitive neuroscientist, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden) “If you can’t hold a plan in mind, you’ll get distracted” (as cited by Wickelgren, 2015, p.87). It is no exaggeration to observe that WM has a critical impact on learning. Note that children taking WM tests and scoring in the lowest 10 percent of the general population are 4/5 times more likely to have great challenges with respect to math, reading or both types of tasks.
  • Cognitive Flexibility: the ability to locate alternative solutions to challenges. This process is integral to critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity.
  • Self-Regulation: the ability to manage inappropriate, ill-timed and competing impulses. This domain is vital for emotional maturity, adaptive social skills and academic success.

These executive functions are located in the pre-frontal cortex, situated immediately to the rear of the forehead. The education system however, in its current curricula, does not promote the training and enhancement of executive functions. Neither does the education system have a program in place for the enhancement of basic math skills (i.e. number sense) or listening skills (for comprehension). As noted previously, this is due to the assumption that these types of skills are fixed.

Nevertheless, there is broad consensus that intellectual potential can be strongly influenced by one’s environment, notably socio-economic status. For example, growing up in a stressful and maladaptive environment can significantly impede a person’s executive functions. As noted by William M. Jenkins (chief science officer, Scientific Learning, Oakland, California):

For a four- or five-year old, the difference in language exposure between a child from a low socioeconomic class and one from a high socioeconomic class can be as much as 30 million words ” [as cited by Wickelgren, 2015, p.87]

For example: growing up in poverty can impair a person’s executive functions. Educators in turn have become more sensitive to the (adaptive or maladaptive) impact of environment upon one’s learning capacity. Wickelgren for example notes of curricula that now promote the executive skill of self-regulation as well as other facets of intellectual capacity.

Can Working Memory be Improved?

The aforementioned Swedish cognitive neuroscientist Klingberg who has researched the neurological foundations of working memory (WM) has noted of the relationship between ADD/ADHD and WM limitations. Conventional thought on WM generally assumes this to be a (non-changing) or “stable” trait, but Klingberg suggests a departure from this type of thinking. According to Klingberg:

I thought of it as a muscle that can be trained” [as cited by Wickelgren, 2015, p.87]

By taking ADD/ADHD factors (i.e. inability to maintain attention to a task) into account, Kilngberg has actually designed “working memory workouts”. These include exercises for verbal tasks (e.g. recalling a series of numbers and then repeating these in reverse order), directions, array exercises (e.g. reproducing order in which a series of light bulbs lit up). Klingberg and his research team published the results of their studies with children challenged by ADHD (ages 7-12) in 2005. The results clearly showed improvement with respect to attention and WM. The success of this study led to the development of the CogMed company – for more recent research, see this report: “Can Computer-based Games help Improve Working Memory and Cognitive Processing Deficits?” (pdf also available in

In 2010 William B. Benninger (Ohio State University) and his research partners discovered that children and adolescents with ADHD who conducted the Klingberg CogMed type “working memory workouts” at home derived the following benefits: fewer ADHD symptoms, higher organization skills and were more attentive to tasks. Two years later in 2012, Julie B. Schweitzer (a psychologist at the School of Medicine, University of California, Davis) and her research partners discovered that children with ADHD who engaged in Klingberg CogMed type exercises showed much less “off-task” behaviour such as looking away form their assignment sheets. This essentially results in a higher level of focus and concentration during the learning process.

Another study by Darren L. Dunning (psychologist at the University of East Anglia, England) and his research associates examined the effects of CogMed training on the working memory (WM) of 42 children (ages 8-11) whose scores in WM ability fell into the lowest 15 percent of the cohort population. The Dunning research team provided CogMed training for 22 of the children over a 5-7 week period. The remaining 22 children (the control group) were given less challenging versions of the original CogMed training. The treatment group (Cogmed) showed great improvements in all aspects of working memory (WM) performance in comparison to the control group. Follow-up studies of the treatment group (Cogmed) showed that these learners were scoring higher on standardized tests of mathematics reasoning in comparison to when they were starting the Cogmed training. These learners had essentially continued to use their “improved” brains to further study mathematics. Evidently these learners felt empowered by their newfound and enhanced skills, which made them more motivated (and perhaps even excited) to learn more mathematics.

The major limitation of the Klingberg, Benninger Schweitzer and Dunning studies however, is that their findings cannot be extrapolated onto adults, notably post-secondary students. This suggests the need for similar studies applied to older (adult) learners.

Can Reasoning be Improved?

Reasoning, which a higher-level cognitive skill that depends on executive functions (i.e. paying attention, WM), is a critical element for student success. This is the capacity for logical thinking, engaging in problem-solving in unique situations, as well as connecting concepts and seeing the relationships between them. The aforementioned Allyson P. Mackey and Silvia A. Bunge (psychologist at the University of California, Berkley) examined the possibility of improving reasoning skills. The researchers selected computer-based and commercial board games that greatly depend on reasoning skills. These games processed a variety of cognitive skills such as being able to integrate a variety of information, logical skills as well as navigation/direction skills (i.e. the Rush Hour game in which you need to figure out the best way to avoid traffic jams). Two groups of young students aged 7-10 were examined in the Mackey-Bunge study. One group (17 young students) from highly poverty-stricken backgrounds played the aforementioned games for a period of eight weeks (an hour per day, twice a week). The second group (11 young students) played different games that focused on processing speed (how fast one can make sense of information presented). Both groups showed improvement on the skills they practiced with. The first group (reasoning games) improved by a 30 percent margin on skills that test reason – and their IQ scores jumped up by a remarkable average of 10 points. The second group (processing speed) improved by 30 percent on tasks that examined speed of processing. While more studies are needed, especially with respect to post-secondary students, the results of the Mackey-Bunge study indicate that reasoning skills as a whole can be improved with select tasks and/or games.

Can Basic Math Abilities be Improved?

Mental engagement with basic math skills relies heavily on working memory (WM). This is especially critical in how we need to hold numbers (in our WM) to work with these. Especially critical to basic mathematics skill is the aforementioned phenomenon of number sense. Put simply, number sense is one’s sense of quantity (or “how many”) which allows us to compare numbers of items in two distinct groups or also the addition and subtraction of items. An example of number sense is one’s ability to recognize that six squares and different from 7 seven squares or that 200 is actually more than 40. Persons who lack a well-developed number sense are at risk for developing a type of mathematical learning disability known as dyscalculia. Interestingly, there is now a consensus among researchers that number sense is primarily localized in the intraparietal sulcus of the brain. More specifically, this is a narrow fissure on the side of the surface area of the parietal lobes.

There are indications that computerized games appear to also enhance basic mathematics abilities. As noted by Wickelgren:

One Arrowsmith exercise involves adding one small number to the next as the digits appear sequentially, keeping a running total, and reporting the sum at the end” [2015, p.89]

Two types of games that have shown promise in terms of enhancing number sense are the web-based games known as Number Race and Number Catcher. Stanislas Dehaene (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) and his research associates are the designers of the Number Race game. Players engaged in Number Race are required to compare numbers of dots and then associate these with symbols. The players also need to learn basics facts of subtraction and addition. Dehaene et al. examined in 2006 the impact of Number Race on 15 children (aged 7-9 years) diagnosed with dyscalculia. The sample showed improvements with respect to subtracting one-digit numbers, making rapid visual evaluations of quantity and comparing numbers (results of this study are also discussed by Gary Stix, 2015, page 68; see references). Dehaene et al. followed up in 2009 with a follow-up study, this time examining a group of 53 younger children from low socio-economic status at high risk for math problems. The study demonstrated that children who used the Number Race game in comparison to a reading software program, significantly improved with respect to comparing number that were represented as symbols. This would suggest that the participants had learned the concept of abstract symbols and how these could represent numbers (quantities). Dehaene et al. have also developed a more advanced game known as Number Catcher. This program improves basic math skills by representing numbers in various ways as well as exercising the learner’s fundamental calculation abilities.

Shelli R. Kesler (psychiatrist at Stanford University) and her research associates examined in 2011 the impact of these types of games on 16 girsl diagnosed with Turner’s syndrome. Note this is a chromosome condition that influences the development of females with the most common manifestation being shortness of height, a condition evident usually by the age of 5. The Kesler et al. study indicated that the girls improved with respect to cognitive flexibility, number sense and speed of processing. Two other skills that improved, albeit at a lesser level, were calculation skills and mathematics facts.

Another game introduced by Wickelgren is the series of on-line brain-games known as Luminosity. Three games of note in this are problem-solving, comparison of mathematical expressions presented in pairs, and basic arithmetic problems. However the Luminosity program has undergone criticism for having made exaggerated claims in its’ advertising – see Hurley (in references) and a summary of his recent research in “Can Computer-based Games help Improve Working Memory and Cognitive Processing Deficits?” (pdf also available in

Can Basic Reading Abilities be Improved?

Much like basic math abilities, reading implicates complex cognitive skills such as executive skills and reasoning. A notable reading disability is dyslexia. This is the process in which the brain has trouble in (neurologically) recognizing and processing individual words. This condition is believed to affect 5-17 percent of children. Linda Siegel (Educational Psychologist, Human learning Development and Instruction specialist, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia) has identified in her decades long research the phonological deficit that contributes to dyslexia. This deficit contributes to difficulties in the ability to recognize rapid changes in similar sounds (i.e. “ba” and “da”).

Paula Tallal (neuroscientist at Rutgers University) and Michael Merzenich (professor emeritus, University of California, San Francisco) founded the Scientific Learning outlet. This develops computer-based software to improve auditory processing among persons with reading disabilities. The FastForWord program in particular works at helping with the hearing and discrimination of phonemes. More recent versions of this also exercise executive abilities critical to reading skill and comprehension.

Results for the efficacy of this program are somewhat mixed. Nadine Gaab (neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School) and Tallal in 2007 found that this improved the reading and language skills of children challenged with dyslexia. The study examined 22 children who participated in the program for eight weeks (five days a week, 20 minutes per day). Interestingly as noted by Wickelgren there was:

increased activation in brain circuitry responsible for processing rapidly changing sounds” [2015, p.90]

A 2008 study by Helen J. Neville (University of Oregon) and her research associates also found improvements auditory stimuli and language comprehension. However 2 meta-analysis conducted in 2011 by Charles Hume (University of York, England) and his research associates have seriously questioned the efficacy of the FastForWord Language program with respect to auditory challenges and dyslexia.

Can “IQ” be Improved?

Wickelgren provides a summary of student brain-training programs aimed at helping students with diagnosed learning disabilities as well as students without such disabilities. One of these is CogMed used for students with ADHD and various other learning disabilities. Reporting in 2015, Wickelgren cites of Cogmed being used in 500 clinics in Canada and the US, these mainly working with learners challenged with ADHD.

Interestingly despite criticisms of FastForWord and Luminosity, both are now in widespread use. In the case of FastForWord 3000 schools use this software as part of their curricula to assist students with reading challenges. More extensive is the LEAP (Luminosity Education Access Program) which had by 2015, a total of 14,000 students in 500 classes globally. Despite the aforementioned criticisms Nicole F. Ng (former teacher, current manager at LEAP) has claimed that LEAP can improve students’ performance with respect to processing speed, memory and reasoning. However, as noted previously, Luminosity and its claims of improving academic-related cognitive skills have been questioned. In addition, the efficacy of the Eaton Arrowsmith Project discussed in the early part of this article, has also been questioned. The aforementioned Linda Siegel conduced an 8-month study of the school’s efficacy. The results of her study have not found data showing that the program can improve performance on achievement and cognitive tests. The author of this article (Kaveh Farrokh) contacted Dan Hurley to inquire further about his research, especially with respect to programs that have the potential to improve cognitive performance in ADD/ADHD students. Here are the highlights of his response to Kaveh Farrokh on November 20, 2017:

Hi Kaveh: Thanks for reaching out. Right now, the strongest scientific evidence for benefits has been seen with a program called Brain HQ. If you ever want to suggest a program to one of your students with ADHD, that’s the one I recommend. Of course, kids with ADHD are the very ones who will have the hardest time sticking with these kinds of programs. But it’s nice for people to see that, with practice, they do get better.  …

All the best with your important work in helping students succeed. Please stay in touch.  Best, Dan

[Note: the webpage is …]


Hurley, D. (2017). The For-Real Science of Brain Training. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.76-83.

Stix, (2015). How to build a better learner. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp. 68-75.

Wickelgren, I. (2015). Calisthenics for a child’s mind. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.85-91.

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