How Memory Works

Given that all teaching ultimately aims at students learning and remembering what they have learned, it is important to consider some strategies, which may enhance this process. This is a quick brush-stroke view of how memory works. 

Short-term and long-term memory

Short-term and long-term memory is a useful separation. Short-term memory is like a desk-top (small) - its capacity is limited. It will hold about 7 items at one time. Some people can hold 9 some can hold 5 - so it is 7+or - 2

Long-term memory is thought to be unlimited and in like a large filing cabinet. 

Limited Capacity

Since short-term memory is limited, things can get pushed off the edge. If a student comes into class thinking of other things and then tries to get out their homework they may have already filled their short-term memory at the time, especially if their limit is 5 items. 

What gets things in?

Things which grab your attention - like your name.

Things which trigger emotions - these have to be stringer than those already being felt.

Things which are different or discrepant. 

Commands can also 'clear the work surface' - students can control this themselves by giving themselves the command to clear their mind. 

What keeps things in?

Rehearsal keeps things in.  

Another thing which helps hugely is organisation - a mental outline of what is occuring grouped under headings for example.  

Elaboration also helps - this involves going from simple to complex - elaborating on a simple and practical - concept, procedure or principle ( see notes on Elaboration Theory)  

What helps retrieve things?

From short-term memory - wait 3 to 8 seconds. This is analogous to looking through some papers on the desk. 

From long-term memory- organisation is the key feature. The more organised the information was when it went in the easier it is to retrieve it. There are a number of theories about this. One 'composite' theory is attached describing how the manner of processing determines the kind of knowledge stored - see model. 

Distributed practice also helps retrieve things. Practice looking for things in your memory once every few days or week and it will be available for the test or interview etc when needed. Concept maps can help here by attempting to map what is stored in the mind and its connections 

Connectors and examples also help. They can be both 'rich' and 'multiple'. The more links, and the more diverse the links are, with what is already there, the more likely it will be triggered off by a wider range of events and more easily retrieved. The connectors and examples can be built in to the learning by activities and also by synthesising and summarising on a regular basis in the lesson and in groups of lessons.