What Item Response Theory Can Tell Us About the Complex Span Tasks

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Working memory capacity is an important construct in psychology because of its relationship with many higher-order cognitive abilities and psychopathologies. Working memory capacity is often measured using a type of paradigm known as complex span. Some recent work has focused on shortening the administration time of the complex span tasks, resulting in different versions of these tasks being used (Foster et al., 2015; Oswald, McAbee, Redick, & Hambrick, 2015). Variations in the complex span tasks, such as the number of set sizes, can lead to varying power to discriminate individuals at different ability levels. Thus, research findings may be inconsistent across populations due to differing appropriateness for the ability levels. The present study uses a combination of item response theory and correlational analyses to better understand the psychometric properties of the operation span, symmetry span, and rotation span. The findings show that the typical administration of these tasks, particularly the operation span, is not suitable for above average ability samples (Study 1; n = 573). When larger set sizes are added to the tasks (Study 2; n = 351), predictive validity and discriminability is improved for all complex span tasks, however the operation span is still inferior to the spatial tasks. The authors make several conclusions about which tasks and set sizes should be used depending on the intended population, and further suggest avoiding the standard-length operation span for average or higher ability populations.

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