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Visual, Verbal Difference in Poor; Dartmouth Research Links Various Memory Abilities to Environment

Hanover — It’s no secret that wealthy children tend to perform better in school than kids living in poverty, but a new study out of Dartmouth College also has found differences between poor rural children and their urban counterparts.

The study, which has been published online and will appear in the next edition of the Journal of Cognition and Development, found that low-income urban and rural children performed differently on tests measuring working memory, or the ability to retain information in their minds while completing a task.

Working memory plays an important role in decision making, strategy and ability to focus, and is considered a better predictor of academic ability than IQ, according to the study. The findings have implications for policy makers who often take a one-size-fits-all approach to boosting academic performance of poor children, said Michele Tine, an assistant professor of education and the principal investigator in the Poverty and Learning Lab at Dartmouth.

Environment appears to have a significant influence on working memory of poor children, Tine said, and so programs seeking to help disadvantaged children should consider where a child lives as well as their socioeconomic status.

“We know that poverty tends to have a large impact (on cognitive ability),” Tine said. “But rural poverty has a different impact than urban poverty.”

The study looked at sixth-grade students in both high- and low-income schools located in urban and rural areas. Wealth proved to be the great equalizer, with rural children in high-income areas performing about as well as urban children. Not surprisingly, poor kids fared less well, but they also performed differently from each other.

Poor students in rural areas fared worse than their urban peers in visual working memory tests, struggling more to retain information they saw. Meanwhile, urban children did not perform as well on verbal working memory, or information they heard.

More research is needed to figure out why these differences exist, but Tine offered a few suggestions.

Previous studies have shown that chronic noise pollution, like the kind produced in a city, has negative effects on children’s verbal working memory. The low-income urban children included in the study went to a school that was within a 10-mile radius of three airports. Meanwhile, the rural schools were located more than 50 miles from the nearest airport, possibly explaining why the rural children did better on verbal working memory.

As for the disparity in visual working memory tests, rural children have fewer everyday interactions with visual stimulation of traffic, crowds, buildings and signs, giving them less opportunity to develop those skills.

“Considering these differences, it seems possible that children in rural poverty do not use their visuospatial working memory as frequently as children in urban poverty, which could hinder its development,” Tine wrote in her article.

Neither type of poverty is any better or worse than the other, Tine said. Overall, low-income rural children performed about at the same level as urban children. But her study suggests that the different environments shape children’s cognitive development in different ways.

Often, educational policy is crafted based on studies in urban environments and therefore biased toward those populations, Tine said. This study suggests that policy makers should be careful of generalizing, and take environmental differences into account when developing interventions to help children overcome their socioeconomic disadvantages.

“It’s not that one is worse than the other,” Tine said. “They’re just different.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.