Educators educating Educators

Jan 19

Nov 17-Memory-2 Major Facts

There are two fundamental phenomena regarding memory that all educators should be quite attentive to as they directly affect memory and how well students remember information after initially presented.

But first, some reflection on memory.

Why is memory so important? Memory makes us human, it makes us who we are, and shapes our knowledge. It records every emotional and intellectual act and our great joy or terrible misery. It 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.

Memory is essential to our existence, and for that reason, our brains have remarkably powerful capacities for memories. In reality, memories are actually used for the future. It’s the 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 an essential tool of the future.

Reflecting on memory, William Falkner said, “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” He is expressing something that is intuitive; that learning and memory are intertwined, i.e., learning is the process whereby new information about the world is acquired, and memory is the process whereby we hold that information over time.

Imagine life without memory. We are in large part who we are because of what we learned and what we remember. Memory is the glue that binds our mental life together. Our lives would be a series of disconnected fragments that do not have any meaning in relationship to each other. In fact, life becomes meaningless without the binding force of memory.

Quoting Eric Kandel, awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons: “Learning is the means whereby we acquire new working knowledge about the world. Memory is the means whereby we retain that knowledge over time. Our ability to learn and remember is essential to our sense of self and our ability to function effectively in daily life. Memory is the glue that holds our mental life together. As a result, we are who we are in large part because of what we have learned and what we remember from experience.”

The idea of memory was well known to the ancient Greeks. The word memory is derived from the ancient Greek myth of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, who was “said to know everything, past, present, and future.” Mnemosyne was the daughter of Uranus & Gaia, and was the mother of the Muses. According to Greek mythology, Mnemosyne slept with Zeus on nine consecutive nights, and after each night, she gave birth to a child, and each offspring was one of the nine Muses (poetry, the arts, etc.), each related to imagination.

Today cognitive scientists define memory in more scientific and precise terms.

In her book, Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practices, Patricia Wolfe discusses the different types of memory. She begins by pointing out that “not all information processing is conscious; in fact, most of it is not. The brain is constantly taking in sensory stimuli from the outside world, assembling and sorting the stimuli, discarding much of the information, and directing some of it to our conscious attention. Although consciousness represents a small amount of information processing, we would be able to function without it.”

Wolfe continues by explaining the difference between short-term and working memory. “The ability to remember information for a short amount of time is often referred to as short-term memory. Other researchers refer to this ability as working memory. Working memory allows us to integrate current perceptual information with stored knowledge, and to consciously manipulate the information (think about it, talk about it, and rehearse it) well enough to ensure its storage in long-term memory. At the minimum, working memory allows us to do something with retained information, for example, as we retain our phone number, adding the numbers to attain a sum.”

A second description of working memory is provided by the cognitive psychologists B. E. Pennington. He refers to working memory as a “computational arena,” in which information relevant to a current task is maintained on a line and subject to further processing (Pennington, cited in Torgesen, 1996).

Finally, John Medina in his book Brain Rules describes working memory as “a busy, temporary workplace, a desktop the brain uses to process newly acquired information,” and posits that short-term memory is now called working memory.

As indicated by the above opinions, Wolfe argues that “there is no uniform agreement on a model that accurately represents these two facets. Some cognitive scientists view short-term memory and working memory as different processes, some view them as part of the same system, other consider working memory as part of short-term memory.”

Given we now have a basic idea of what working memory, let’s examine two phenomena since they directly affect memory and the retention of new information.

One pertains to the time newly acquired information spends in working memory before it disappears and the other concerns how much information (capacity) working memory can retain during that time.

The first phenomena, the 18-Second Holding Pattern, states that without rehearsal and constant attention, information remains in the working memory for only about 15-20 seconds (McGee & Wilson, 1984) before it disappears (becomes extinct) and forgotten.

The first study of the 18-Second Holding Pattern was carried out in 1959 by Peterson and Peterson (Gazzaniga et al., 1998). They gave subjects the task of remembering a set of three consonants, such as SVL or XCL, that had been flashed on a screen for a fraction of a second. As soon as the letters were removed, they instructed the subjects to count backwards by three in time with a metronome. At three seconds, approximately 20% of the subjects had forgotten the consonants, and at 18 seconds, no one could remember them.

Wolfe points out that “fifteen to twenty seconds may seem to be so brief a memory span as to be almost useless, but a closer look suggests this is efficient. It would be a disadvantage to remember permanently every word in every sentence you have ever read. A memory system that provides temporary storage of just the right amount of information without overloading itself is indeed efficient.”

The second phenomena, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two, gives some sense as to why there are three groups of digits in a phone number, notes on a scale, or days in a week.

George A. Miller, one of the founders of cognitive psychology and a leader in the study of short-term memory, while working at Bell Laboratories, published a paper in Psychological Review that remains one of the most frequently cited papers in the history of psychology. In his 1956 paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” Miller proposed that short-term memory is subject to certain limits, including span and the quantity of information that can be stored at a given time.

With his opening sentence, “My problem, ladies and gentleman, is that I have been persecuted by an integer,” Miller suggests there is a fixed capacity for humans to receive information. Miller’s hypothesis is that given random list of letters, words, numbers, or almost any kind of meaningful familiar item, seven (plus or minus two) items was the magic number that characterized people’s memory performance.

Modern estimates of the capacity of short-term memory are lower, typically 4-5 items.  Beyond this capacity, new information can “bump” out other items from short-term memory and become extinct which is one form of forgetting. In order for information to be remembered, maintenance rehearsal -re-exposure to the information – must occur.

For instance, if someone speaks to you before you’re able to dial a telephone number, you will probably forget the number. This interaction destroys mental rehearsal. To retain phone a number, the information must undergo maintenance rehearsal before the interruption.

To test yourself, try the following memory-span test. Spend about 7 seconds memorizing the following list of 7 digits: 7 4 3 8 5 9 2. When you have finished, look away and try repeating them in order. If your memory span is average, you probably had no difficulty recalling all of them.

Now do the same thing with the following list of 10 digits, giving yourself 10 seconds to memorize them: 6 7 9 4 5 8 1 3 2 9. Unless you have an unusual memory, you probably did not do as well on the second list.

Noteworthy for educators of children younger than 15, Wolfe writes that studies have shown that the number of items that can be held in working memory varies with age. At age 5, a child can recall only two digits, plus or minus 2, if asked to recall a string of digits like the one above. At age 7, a child can recall an average of three, plus or minus two, and at age 11, the average recall is five digits. The number of digits a child can recall accurately increases by one every two years until a mental age of 15. At this age, the normal adult capacity of seven (plus or minus two) is reached (Pascual-Leone, 1970).

In summary, there are limitations of time and capacity that affect the duration of newly acquired information in working memory. In order to increase the durability of information and decrease the possibility of forgetting, active responding or doing something with the 7±2 items within approximately 18-seconds is required.

Before becoming discouraged, there are techniques that can be used to increase the longevity of memory, and improve the chances of remembering by circumventing the working memory restrictions of space and time.

I will put forth some of these practices in the December 2017 Ed Tip.

I trust that you will visit.



“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.