The psychologists like Ashcraft for example think of memory

The role of memory in learning


How people
learn is a very complex topic and there is no one right or wrong answer as to
what it the best way or what factor contributes most to learning. Motivation,
emotion, collaboration and self-regulating are all means in which people learn
however I have chosen to focus on the role of memory in learning. It is
important to first establish what memory is. According to Myers in ‘Psychology’
chapter 9, memory is a storehouse of accumulated learning, everything we have
ever learnt is in our ‘storehouse’, in our memory. “Memory is the means by
which we draw on our past experiences in order to use this information in the
present” (Sternberg, , 1999). Thus, memory is incredibly important in learning
as we continuously use it to retrieve past experiences and what we have previously
learnt in order to process and learn about what is happening at that given
moment. There are a number of theories behind memory, one of the most common
being the information processing theory. Some cognitive psychologists like Ashcraft
for example think of memory like a computer. Both take in and store information
that can be retrieved when needed. This leads to the 3 stages of memory –
encoding, storage and retrieval. Encoding or acquisition is processing and
getting the information into the brain, storage is retaining that encoded
information and retrieval is recovering the information that has been stored
and using it as a response (Jockel, 2009). Using these 3 stages are key in how
people learn as, as stated above, the way memory works is it takes in
information, stores it and then allows you to retrieve it at a later point and
when you are learning you draw a lot on previous knowledge to understand the
new thing you are learning.

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There are 3 types of memory; sensory memory,
working memory and long term memory. Sensory memory is the shortest type of
memory as it only lasts for a few seconds. It retains impressions of something
you have just seen or heard after the stimuli has ended. It is like a snapshot of
what you have just seen or heard that then disappears very quickly. It holds
information from our various senses and processes stimuli so we can make sense
of them (Driscoll, 2005). It is considered to be outside of our control as to
whether or not detected stimuli is deliberately ignored, meaning they disappear
just about instantaneously or perceived, which is when they enter out sensory
memory.  The sensory capacity is huge as
it is constantly taking in the environment around you which is why duration is
of a short period of around 1-3 seconds. That is why at this stage perception
and attention are imperative, especially when a learner is learning something
new. What we pay attention to depends on what we are already know and what we
need to know (Sosu, 2017). According to Anderson we can only pay attention to
one cognitively demanding task at a time and thus when we are learning
something new, it is hard to pay attention to another conflicting stimulus. In
a typical learning environment, information is often transferred visually or
orally. This is the first stage of the new information being processed. This is
why it is so important to ensure a learner is paying attention so that relevant
information can be selected and sent on to the working memory (De Bruyckere,
Kirschner and Hulshof, 2015). There are numerous ways to engage and maintain
and learner’s attention. Visual aids are always eye catching and memorable as
well as group discussions as they encourage the learner to talk about previous
knowledge on a topic and build on it. It is also critical that the content is
stimulating so the learning is constantly engaged and interested (Sosu, 2017).

Another contributing factor to the sensory
memory is perception and the processes of identifying stimulus and assigning
meaning to it. There are two processes within this which are bottom up
processing and top down processing.  In
1966 Gibson proposed a bottom up processing theory. Bottom up processing is based
on the physical appearances of the stimulus. In his own words he states:


“When the senses are considered as perceptual
systems, all theories of perception become at one stroke unnecessary. It is no
longer a question of how the mind operates on the deliverances of sense, or how
past experience can organise the data, or even how the brain can process the
inputs of the nerves, but simply how the information is picked up” (p319)


This showcases his opinion that he believes
information processing is solely based on appearance and that no cognitive processing
is required. Whereas top down processing is based on our existing knowledge. Many
learners use both of these theories when learning. For example, when learning
language, according to ‘teaching English’, top down processing is “thought to
be an effective way of processing language; it makes the most of what the
person brings to the situation”. It discusses the task of encouraging a learner
to predict what an article may be about from using the headline and using
top-down processing. It goes on to give a good example of when a learner would
use both in conjunction.


“in a reading
comprehension learners use their knowledge of the genre to predict what will be in the text (top down), and
their understanding of affixation to
guess meaning (bottom up).”


To sum up top down and bottom up
processing, bottom up processing is more dominated by the sensory environment
and how that environment is percieved. Whereas top down processing is more
based on experience and learning in response to sensory inputs. (Makino and
Komiyama, 2015). Both methods do have the same learning objectives but have
different ways of obtaining these objectives. Top down motivates learners to
learn through finding meaning of an issue by using their experiences and
existing knowledge, whereas bottom-up more focuses on the small details of a
topic as a way of deciphering and simplifying components.



Our working memory is the second stage and is
described as the ‘workbench’ of the memory system. It is a sort of notepad in
our brains which allows us to remember things for short spaces of time in the
course of our mental activities. There are 3 elements to the working memory –
the central executive which is the processor, the phonological loop and the
visuospatial sketchpad which are for storage. The executive acts as a supervisory
system and coordinates the flow of information to and from the phonological
loop and the visuospatial sketchpad.

Working memory is important in learning
because it provides a “mental workspace in which we can hold information whilst
mentally engaged in other relevant activities”. (Gathercole and Alloway, 2007)

Many learning activities that go on in the
classroom, in any area of the curriculum, rely heavily on the working
memory.  The ability to use the working
memory is vital during activities as children very often have to hold
information that the teacher tells them whilst engaged in another activity. One
example being the teacher telling the class a sentence which the child has to
hold in their working memory whilst they are trying to spell individual words
within that sentence. (Gathercole and Alloway,2007)

Working memory can vary a lot between
learners and is something that would need to be considered by an educator.

Firstly, a teacher would have to identify if the learner had a poor working
memory by looking out for signs of this. For example, forgetting words in a
sentence that has just been said to them, failing to follow instructions or
only remembering parts of the instructions or giving up on tasks. If they
observed this, they would have to monitor the child and try to reduce working
memory loads if possible. However, working memory is incredibly important in
learning as it is a mental notepad and is used every day, not only in learning
environments but in everyday life – following directions or remembering a new
pin number.  (Gathercole and Alloway,


We try to transfer the information from working memory to our long
term memory. It is transferred via elaborative rehearsal, where you connect
that information to something you already know that is stored in your long term
memory. Our long term memory is the last stage of memory and stores information
that has been well learned and is banked in a permanent store of knowledge. There
are two stages of the long term memory – the declarative (explicit) and the
non-declarative (implicit). Declarative memory is memory of facts, rules and personal
preferences. It can be sub-divided into episodic memory and semantic memory.

Episodic memory are personal experiences and memories of events and you can use
these to learn as we do not have to work particularly hard to obtain episodic
memories, they just tend to happen. With the episodic memory, what the learner
hears, smells or sees, alongside their emotions become part of the learning. However,
a problem with this is that when the sensory and emotional cues are triggered
and a learner tries to retrieve the episodic memory they remember the
contextual tags and not the actual learning. This is where the semantic memory
comes in. It remembers the facts and knowledge that we have been taught without
the emotions around it. Semantic memories are useful in learning as they are
much more flexible and are context free.


The non-declarative memory is knowing how to do something (Sosu,
2017). It does not require conscious thought. Procedural memory allows us to
carry out learned tasks without having to consciously think about them. For example,
driving, washing dishes, tying a shoelace all require procedural memory. Procedural
memory is important for learning as it is significant to know that it is
impossible for a learner to learn a new skill without practical experience. No
matter how many times a teacher verbally tells a learner how to multiply by
five or how to write the letter h, the learner must try it for themselves in
order for the new skill to be able to be stored in the procedural memory and
this is something educators have to incorporate in their teaching.




There are different types of processing in the long term memory
that improve learning, one of which being elaboration which is when a learner
adds meaning by connecting a piece of new information to their existing
knowledge. The more connections which are made to that piece of knowledge
allows retrieval to be faster through different channels. It is important for
educators to allow learners to make learning their own. This can be done
through allowing them to think of related ideas or examples, explaining a
concept to classmates and applying information to their own experiences.

Organisation is also important in learning as it encourages information to be
processed and organised well as this makes it easier to learn and recall.

Lastly, context is essential in learning as experiments have shown retrieval is
easier in the context where information has been learned. This is something for
both learners and educators to consider when trying to learn or teach something
new. (Suso, 2017)


Overall, memory is vital to learners. I have highlighted key
processes and theories in the memory process and am going to conclude by going
summing up the implications memory has for teaching and learning. The working
memory can be easily overwhelmed and has very limited capacity and so if
learners want to remember information for the long term, we need to make the
most of the long term memory’s huge capacity. Learners have to make links
between bits of information until it makes sense to them and when it does it
can be stored in the long term memory. It is critical that learning is targeted
at improving long term memory. “The aim of all learning should be to improve
long term learning” (primarytimerydotcom, 2018). Thus it is vital that lessons
are meaningful to allow learners to build associations with existing knowledge.

Educators can do this through using visual aids like images and illustrations,
colour coding and grouping ideas, using vocabulary that learners will
understand, trying to tie new ideas with already learnt, familiar ones. There are
many other factors which influence learning however the processes involved in
memory influence learning greatly.