Have you ever found yourself unable to recall the name of a place you’ve visited, wondered how you manage to remember all the words of a song, or experienced having someone’s name ‘on the tip of your tongue’? It will come as no surprise that our memory is responsible for all of these things. In the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts looking at how memory works. We’ll also be looking at how we use this theory to inform our e-learning practice.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that researchers started to develop models of memory. The multi-store model suggests that memory is divided up into stores. Many cognitive psychologists suggest that we have a short-term memory store and a separate long-term store. The short-term store is believed to have a limited capacity and can only retain information for a short period of time. By contrast, the long-term store has an unlimited capacity and can retain information indefinitely.
Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968), expanded upon this basic model, adding a third store called the sensory register. The three parts can be summarised as follows:
- The sensory register receives sensory information – such as things we see or hear – and retains that information for a very short period of time
- Short-term memory is a temporary store, holding information passed to it from the sensory register, and also information retrieved from the long-term store, for use when needed
- The long-term store holds unlimited information indefinitely
Atkinson and Shiffrin suggested that information can be held in the short-term store for approximately 30 seconds. However, if rehearsed it can be held indefinitely. Transfer to the long-term store from the short-term store happens whilst information is held and rehearsed in the short-term store. This is commonly referred to as maintenance rehearsal.
There’s much evidence that supports the idea of separate memory stores. People with anterograde amnesia have the ability to recall distant, past events prior to the onset of the amnesia but cannot create new memories. There’s also empirical evidence to support the notion of separate stores. Presented with a list of items to remember, people tend to recall more of the items from the beginning and end of the list, and fewer from the middle. This is because the items at the beginning of the list are better rehearsed and are believed to have entered into long-term memory (the primacy effect), while items at the end of the list are retained in short-term memory and haven’t yet been transferred to long-term memory (the recency effect).
In contrast to the aforementioned theories, others have focussed more on what we do with the information we receive and the impact of this activity on retention. According to Craik and Lockhart (1972), it’s the depth of mental processing that influences what we remember and what we forget. They made the distinction between two types of processing:
- The first is shallow processing, which involves considering the structure or appearance of information. An example of this would be to consider if a word was in capital letters or sounded like another word
- The second is deep processing, and involves applying meaning, and making links to other information
As you might expect, the deeper the processing, the better the retention.
Baddeley and Hitch (1974) argued that the multi-store model was too simplistic and came up with an alternative. In their opinion, the short-term store does more than simply receive and transfer information. What they referred to as ‘working memory’ consisted of three different systems designed to work together to store, process and filter information as indicated below:
Research by Baddeley and Hitch (1976) indicates that the different systems can process information at the same time, but that one system can only deal with limited information at any given time.
Theories of memory such as those outlined above have an impact on educational practice. In the next blog in this series, we’ll be exploring how the theories we’ve outlined can help teachers, trainers and instructional designers to engage their learners and help them to remember.
Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.
Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal behavior, 11, 671-684.
Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G.H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47–89). New York: Academic Press.
Baddeley AD, Hitch GJ. (1976). Verbal reasoning and working memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 28:603–621.