Investigating the effect of self-referential cues and working memory on children's maths performance

Joshua Jordan March, Karen Golden, Zahra Ahmed, Janet McLean, Josephine Ross, Sheila J. Cunningham

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review


Previous research shows that both adults and children display self-referential biases: highlighting or otherwise activating one’s self-representation typically facilitates performance on tasks involving memory, attention and other cognitive abilities. Whilst self-reference effects are robust and far-reaching, the precise mechanisms underlying them are still not clearly understood. One suggestion is that information relating to the self is easy to remember and manipulate, requiring less working memory capacity than other information (d’Ailly, Simpson & MacKinnon, 1997). Working memory depletion has been argued to affect other abilities, including maths performance (Moore, Rudig & Ashcraft, 2014). If this is the case, including the self in maths tasks could reduce working memory load and lead to improved performance. This could therefore be a useful manipulation to help pupils struggling to filter unnecessary information in maths tasks.

The current study will test this theory by investigating the effect of self-referencing cues on children’s performance in mathematical word problems. We will collect data with 32 children between 7 and 11 years of age (the sample size was determined using pilot data and tested with G*Power). In the word problems, children will need to hold pieces of information in mind whilst performing arithmetic (e.g. ‘John has 8 apples, but then he gave some to Tim. If John now has 3 apples, how many did he give away?’; d’Ailly et al., 1997). In a within-subjects design, the problems will contain either self-referential pronouns (i.e. “You”) or pronouns in the 2nd or 3rd person (“Me” or “Lucy”). Children will also complete a Backwards Digit Span task to assess working memory. To comply with social distancing guidelines, both tasks will be administered online using the Gorilla Experiment Tool whilst children are in a video call with an experimenter.
Performance on the mathematical word problems will be assessed using accuracy and completion time. A within-subjects one-way ANOVA will compare performance on these variables between the self-, second- and third-person pronoun conditions. We anticipate that children will be more accurate and faster in the self-pronoun condition than in the other two conditions. Working memory will be included as a covariate to determine whether performance is related to working memory capacity.

Data collection will begin before the end of October – experimenters will contact local schools to recruit families with children in the desired age range. Given the small sample size, we anticipate that data collection and analysis will be completed before December and work on a follow-up study can proceed. Our data should therefore be fully analysed in time for the conference.
Identifying a self-reference effect will provide us with both short- and long-term benefits. In the short-term, this experimental design can be used to test various hypotheses about the mechanisms underlying self-referential biases. By modifying the basic task structure we can determine whether self-reference effects are due to reduced working memory, enhanced attention, increased engagement, etc… In the long-term, understanding the mechanisms driving this effect can help us develop effective learning tips and other potential applications in discussion with teachers and policy-makers.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 9 Apr 2021
EventSociety for Research in Child Development biennial meeting - virtual event
Duration: 7 Apr 20219 Apr 2021


ConferenceSociety for Research in Child Development biennial meeting
Abbreviated titleSRCD 2021
Internet address


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