Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

May 15 Long-term memory

Getting started with this month’s Ed Tips, think of a penny. By the time y u are 40 years old, you probably have handled a penny at least 40,000 times.

Given all of the interaction with a penny, it is a valid conclusion you have a precise memory of all aspects of the penny. Correct?

Let me ask a question about the penny.

Does Lincoln’s profile face left or right? What, if anything, is above, below, to the right, or to the left of Lincoln’s profile?

Or how about this one: from the picture below pick out the correct penny.


penny faces

Make sure you find the answer in your mind and not in your pocket!

I’ll give you a few moments to figure this out.

According to John Gabrieli, Grover Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, “the reason our brains have remarkable capacity for memories is that memory is actually for the future. It’s a way we learn about the world so that we’re more competent, more skilled, and more efficient the next time we encounter a task. And so, while memory is of the past, it is a tool for the future.”

Much of the time, we need to store information only briefly—while dialing a phone number or reading a paragraph from beginning to end. The brain accomplishes this with short-term memory, which holds data for seconds to several minutes.

But there are limitations with short-term memory. First, it can only hold about four unfamiliar items at a time and eight items if they are relatively familiar.

Second, information is quickly lost from short-term memory. Researchers have established that short-term memory data is lost in approximately five to twenty seconds unless immediately acted upon.

For example, if someone speaks to you before you’re able to dial a telephone number, you will probably forget the number unless you do something with the number. This doing something with the information is known as “mental rehearsal.”

During mental rehearsal, an “active buffer” is established. This is a place where information is maintained by continuously repeating, e.g., a phone number. The repeating of information is called the “articulatory loop” recurring every 1.5 seconds.

In other words, to retain information in short-term memory, data must continuously be repeated every 1.5 seconds, and done so indefinitely. When the “articulatory loop” ends, the information is immediately forgotten and becomes extinct.

The most efficient method to retain data for a longer time is to transfer it to long-term memory.

Metaphorically, long-term memory is an archival library where data is filed for retrieval and passage of time does not dim this system.

In many ways, what we know is who we are – we know our names, our loved ones, the values we hold, the abilities and needs we have, the facts of the world we inhabit. We knew none of this at birth – we came to know all of this through the making of memories. Long-term memory determines who you are, what you can do, and how you see your world. Every mental operation you perform depends on easy access of information you acquired earlier in your life. You find an experience meaningful because of its relationship to what is already in your mind.

According to Gabrieli, there are three stages involved in making and encoding a long-term memory and it is a multistage process unfolding over time.

Encoding is the initial stage when data from an experience or bits of factual information are simply encoded in the brain. In this stage, utilizing our senses, the brain selecting what happens in our environment and records the ongoing experience.

The next stage is the storage when key elements of the experience are selected, connected, and maintained for storage in designated areas of the brain.

In order to improve the storage of information, the information undergoes a process called consolidation. During consolidation, memories are integrated with other experiences and facts into the framework of things you know. The consolidation process establishes memories more securely making them less subject to misremembering or forgetting.

Lastly, the final stage is retrieval, where stored knowledge is found and implemented to help us function efficiently in our daily lives.

However, there are conditions surrounding encoding and storage of information that determine how readily we can retrieve and recall a memory. For instance, we are more likely to remember a situation, face, or fact if we paid close attention to it at the time, had a strong motivation to remember it, or was enhanced by an emotional or novel event.

Other factors affecting the efficiency of long-term memory is the sheer difficulty of loading information into the system, efficient encoding strategies that enable input to be fully processed and interpreted and related to what is already known, and the need to use retrieval strategies which enable ease in accessing stored memories.

To effectively combat these problems, it is best to remember that for true learning to occur, our minds are never inert. Our minds must be active to learn and remember and to move information into long-term memory. In other words, the mind has to do something with the information to make it memorable before it disappears.

Thinking back to the opening penny exercise, many times people hesitate answering the question even though they have handled a penny hundred of times. Why? It demonstrates that we are selective in which experiences we remember illustrated by the fact that even though we have handled a penny many times it does necessarily insure we remember the experience.

In order to improve the probability that the mind remembers and learns from an experience, the learning must be made meaningful, novel, or tied to our emotions. For instance, I’ll guarantee you remember more about your last vacation than your last faculty meeting.

The correct answer to the Lincoln penny question is below.

Lincoln penny profile

There are literarily hundreds of teaching techniques that improve the stages of memory creation and some are discussed below.

Recall of prior knowledge

A major determinant of knowledge acquisition is what the mind already knows. The preservation of a memory is affected by how well it is integrated with other facts and experiences already stored in the brain. The more links with your general body of knowledge, the more reliably the memory will be recalled.

A technique to augment the integration of information is to utilize a teaching method called recall of prior knowledge. Studies have shown that when new information is recognized as related to prior knowledge, learning is enhanced.

The practice of recalling prior knowledge prior to the introduction of a new topic builds on the fact that it is far easier to build coherently organized existing knowledge than it is to learn new material (de nova).

The meaningfulness, relatedness, and understanding of prior knowledge to new knowledge serve as filters for the incoming information and are the major factors responsible for its success.

I am sure you have experienced in the past that new information not related to existing knowledge is quickly shed, since the mind does not relate well to unstructured data such as random lists, data, information, or unrelated materials.

Finally, below is a mnemonics of quick and easy teaching strategies that I have often used and have found to be efficient to insure the encoding and storage of information.


C= Chunking: Arranging information into a meaningful pattern by grouping, sorting, organizing, or classifying information

R=Rehearsal: Repeat the information to oneself, called rote learning when not linked to existing knowledge and labeling when an object is named after a baby points to it.

I=Imaginary=Picture it within your mind.

M=Mnemonics=ROYGBI=colours of the rainbow.

E=Elaboration is processing information by adding to it in a meaningful way, acting as a trigger for bringing other data from long-term memory into the working memory consciousness. Fusing new and old data creates a more durable and accessible memory trace.

Example: 8912815, Born 1989, in the month of December (12), at 8:15

I hope you found this discussion helpful and continued success with your students!


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.