Chapter 2: Sensory, Short-Term/Working, and Long-Term Memory

“Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open”
– Thomas Dewar

Memory (psychology) – processes by which people and other organisms encode, store, and retrieve information. Encoding refers to the initial perception and registration of information. Storage is the retention of encoded information over time. Retrieval refers to the processes involved in using stored information. Whenever people successfully recall a prior experience, they must have encoded, stored, and retrieved information about the experience. Conversely, memory failure-for example, forgetting an important fact-reflects a breakdown in one of these stages of memory.

Memory is critical to humans and all other living organisms. Practically all of our daily activities-talking, understanding, reading, socializing-depend on our having learned and stored information about our environments. Memory allows us to retrieve events from the distant past or from moments ago. It enables us to learn new skills and to form habits. Without the ability to access past experiences or information, we would be unable to comprehend language, recognize our friends and family members, find our way home, or even tie a shoe. Life would be a series of disconnected experiences, each one new and unfamiliar. Without any sort of memory, humans would quickly perish.

Without memory we would be wanderers in a world that was perpetually new and unfamiliar. There are two methods psychologists use to study memory. The first is through self-reporting (introspection), and this approach involves asking participants to record the way they remember and forget. The second method is naturalistic study, and is often experimental in nature. Naturalistic experiments attempt to reproduce events that are more representative of real life, and participants are often asked to remember natural material such as stories, films, events, maps or other visualised material, instead of lists of letters, nonsense syllables or digits

Click on the Link Below:

The Modal Model of Memory1.ppt

The basic characteristics of the model include:

  1. the existence of several linked processing systems;
  2. stage-by-stage processing of information;
  3. a unidirectional flow of information.

The modal model, or multistore model, of memory has become one of the most well-known theoretical memory models. The creators of this approach hypothesize that all parts of the memory system can be divided into two main categories: the control processes and the permanent structure. The control processes are the procedures that one performs in order to encode, maintain, and retrieve memories. The permanent structure includes the different memory stores, which are described in detail below.

The Sensory Store

The sensory store, or the register, records information that comes in through the senses. The information only remains in this store for a few seconds after the stimulus is gone.

The two senses that have been studied the most in terms of their role in memory are vision and hearing. The term “iconic memory” refers to visual impressions in the sensory store. Auditory information that enters the sensory store is called “echoic memory”. One’s iconic memory might hold, for instance, the visual impression of a firework, while the echoic memory will hold for a few seconds the loud noise of the firework.

Most of the information in the sensory store vanishes forever after a few seconds. If all of these information were kept and focused on, we would be so bombarded with stimuli that we would be unable to function. Instead, the brain is constantly going through a selection process to decide which sensory memories are necessary to keep and which should be thrown away. The information that is kept and processed passes into the short-term memory store.

  • visual sensory is very limited. Only seven to nine pieces of information are processed at any given time, and much of that decays rapidly. Information held in visual sensory memory receives only limited processing (less than 0.5 second for iconic register and recall)
  • auditory register and recall (echo) – slightly more than 3 seconds – ability of the echo to retain information seems related to the processing of language
  • Knowledge and context play important role in our perceptual processes – previous knowledge and past experiences!
  • attention = a person’s allocation of cognitive resources to the task at hand
  • attention is maximized if one engages in resource-limited tasks (focusing on one task at a time – e.g. watching television while reading?) and avoid data-limited tasks (tasks that you do not possess much knowledge and skills about) – e.g. learning advanced math without having proper foundation in basic math
  • the role of automatic processes (vs. controlled processes) – require fewer cognitive resources than nonautomated processes

Q: Will being exposed to stimuli from various modality (visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile/haptic, olfactory, etc.) help to enhance memorization of a particular experience? Why do you say so? – enhancement in exposure!

Sensory memory briefly processes a limited amount of incoming stimuli. Visual registers hold about 7 to 9 pieces of information for about 0.5 second. Auditory registers hold about 5 to 7 pieces of information for up to 4 seconds. Incoming stimuli are perceived, then matched to a recognizable pattern, and then assigned a meaning. How much information we can process depends on two things: 1)the complexity of the information and 2)our available resources. Automated tasks are easy to perform because they require fewer attentional resources. Resource-limited tasks are difficult no matter how much attention we allocate because the information itself is deficient.

Short-Term Memory (7 plus/minus 2) –
the size of the chunks doesn’t really matter!

The short-term memory store holds memories for about thirty seconds. Much of this memory is then forgotten. However, the more important information is then transferred into the long-term memory store. The brain engages in this process naturally, but we can also to an extent control this process by rehearsing, or repeating new memory in order to encode it.

Short-term memory is often referred to as “working memory”. This is because the short-term memory store does not only hold memories, but it also manipulates information and uses it to perform tasks. Working memory consists of three parts. The first component involves perceived sounds, and the second is concerned with visual and spatial information. The third part, the “central executive”, uses information from the first two parts as well as from the long-term memory store.

Like sensory memory, the capacity and duration of short-term memory are quite limited. We hold approximately 7 (plus/minus 2) pieces of information in working memory at a time. This information is forgotten quickly because of interference, decay, and replacement by new information.

The working memory includes a central executive, articulatory loop, and visual-spatial sketch pad. The central executive coordinates the two remaining slave systems, which are responsible for maintenance of verbal and spatial information. Research suggests that each subsystem possesses some unique resources that enable individuals to distribute information processing load.

How do we access information in the STM?

people search the contents of short-term memory in a serial (search one by one) and exhaustive (detailed and meticulous – going through all the items) fashion NOT parallel or search all item in memory simulataneously and self-terminating or ending search when one finds something he/she is looking for

Long-Term Memory

The long-term memory store contains nearly all of what we consider our memory. There are several ways to code memory into this store, some more effective than others. One technique used to improve encoding is elaboration, the connecting of new information to information already in the long-term store. Elaboration may be conscious, such as when mnemonic devices are used, or it may be unconscious.

Note: It is possible for information to enter long-term memory (LTM) without ever entering short-term memory (STM). Researchers have found that individuals with severe STM damage still somehow encode new memories into LTM.

Cognitive Load Theory

States that learning is constrained by limited processing capacity. The higher the cognitive load of the to-be-learned information, the harder it is to learn that information (in other words, minimizing the number of internal mental processes that take place in the ‘mind’ enhances the process of learning)

  • intrinsic cognitive load – caused by the inherent properties of the to-be-learned information and is unalterableother than by schema acquisition
  • extraneous cognitive load – results from the manner in which to-be-learned information is presented or from activities required of the learner

For additional reading and reinforcement:

Sensory memory is everything that you are exposed to at a given instant in time. The best way to think of sensory memory is to consider what happens as you watch a ice-hockey game. You are constantly aware of the location of all the players, but two seconds later as the play continues, you are unable to recall where each player was on the ice.

Short term memory (STM) does not have a lot of capacity and it doesn’t last very long (5-7 seconds). An example of short term memory is when someone gives you a phone number to remember and you forget it before you get to dial the number.

Long term memory (LTM) on the other hand lasts indefinitely, like your student ID number.

It used to be thought that the process of remembering was like an “assembly line” and that stimuli (words, pictures, actions etc.) passed from one station on the assembly line to the next (unidirectional flow of information)

Working Memory: A Modern Advance (needed because STM cannot explain the kind of processes that took place in it)

In the early 1990s, Alan Baddeley (University of York, UK) and his colleagues proposed a newer model of memory: with an additional component known as the working memory.

Introduction to Cognitive Psychology (Chapter 1)


  1. A Brief History
  2. Cognitive Themes for Education

Subject Matter of Cognitive Psychology? (When we talk about cognition, we mean one or more of the following)
· Human perception

· Thought processes

· Memory (Sensory, STM, LTM)

· Attention

· Information Processing

· Problem Solving

· Decision Making

· Associative Processes

· Motivation behind learning

· Language development

· Meaning attached to concepts, etc.

· Imagery

· EVERYTHING that involves your ‘mind’ (brain’s intellectual function)

A Brief History

The Associationist era
1. Stimulus – Response paradigm of psychology (1920-1970)

2. Cognition was studied by systematically observing external (overt) behavior (do you sense any problem with this?)

3. Experiments on ‘lower organisms’ (laboratory animals; highly controlled settings) – the results and findings of these experiments brought about difference laws of learning (e.g. Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning)

4. These laws were thought to be universally applicable to humans (can we accept generalizations about human learning from studies of animal learning?)

5. Clark Hull, Kenneth Spence, Hermann Ebbinghaus – popular Associationist

6. Example of the laws of learning established in this era:

· Trial and error learning (random, non-purposive actions lead to learning) – more in infants; initial learning of certain (limited) life skills – at higher level, TEL can be frustrating (do you agree?)

· Serial list learning (one item cues the next item in the list)

· Paired associate learning (a response must be linked with a stimulus)

7. All these laws of learning emphasized rote or non-meaningful learning!

8. These experimental findings had limited application to complex human functioning and were less relevant to the field of education – the findings couldn’t be applied to benefit the study of all other species across settings and contexts (that makes sense because no one species responds similarly to any given stimulus – individual difference factor!)

9. In essence the laws of learning that emerged in this era were more like ‘laws of animal learning’, or ‘laws of animals learning to make choices in mazes’, or ‘laws of human rote memory’, rather than UNIVERSAL LEARNING PRINCIPLES

The Behaviorists Era (behaviorism – originator of behavior modification)

  1. Mid 1960s – study of consciousness was discredited
  2. B.F. Skinner, J.B. Watson – “give me a newborn child and I will make him/her anything I want him/her to become” – tabula rasa (clean slate)
  3. Learners are subject to conditioning by their environment
  4. Scientific psychology attempts to predict and control behavior
  5. Organisms behavior is largely a function of the environment in which they are placed and their learning histories
  6. By managing the antecedents and consequences for behavior, prediction and control can be achieved (shaping)
  7. Consequences can be presented before a behavior takes place and chains of desired/complex behavior could be developed
  8. By 1970s – behavioral principles in human learning were applied successfully in a variety of settings (residential treatment facilities for persons with mental illness and mental retardation; field of education – controlling learning environment to manage behavior, classroom management, teaching machines – frequent responding, progress in small steps, shaping, and positive reinforcement – e.g. toy laptops for kids)

Problems with the two earlier eras:
1. Over-reliance on external, observable behavior to study internal, implicit mental processes – limiting the possibility of the functioning of mental processes in the absence of behavioral manifestation (“you can imprison my body, but I am free, in my mind!” – can we really study cognition in a confinement? – the experience of Apostle Paul in the prison?)

2. Inadequate account of human thought and memory – studies were done mainly with lower organisms – rats, cats, monkeys, birds, etc.

3. Many cognitive processes like human memory, thinking, problem solving, decision making, creativity, etc. were not understandable and researchable with the use of Associationist and behaviorist approaches/framework (these two were too narrow in their scope to study these complex processes)

4. Inability and inadequacy of these two school of thought in explaining and defending language development – language is not merely learned through imitation, reinforcement, association. These are contributing factors, but not the sole factors! How do we explain the qualitative difference in child and adult speech? Language development at different life stages are drastic and amazing – thus, behavioral principles alone are not sufficient to explain this complex phenomenon of language development

The Cognitive Era

  1. Came as a direct result of limitations in behavioral theories and models
  2. Emergence of computer (metaphorically demonstrates the working of human mind – information processing)
  3. Jerome Bruner, David Ausubel, Jean Piaget, etc.
  4. Emphasizes mental structures and organizational framework – these two are crucial for an understanding of human cognition
  5. Schema (pl. Schemata) = mental framework that helps us organize knowledge, directs perception, and attention, and guides recall
  6. Scripts = schema representations that provide mental frameworks for proceduralized knowledge

Cognitive Themes for Education

  1. Learning is a constructive, not a receptive process – interaction among what learners already know, the information they encounter, and what they do as they learn – construction of meaning by the learner – knowledge is created and re-created – ‘you get out of it only what you put into it’ – full engagement in the process of learning vs. rote memorization (superficial and transitory) – deeper understanding of knowledge
  2. Mental frameworks organize memory and guide thought – schemata are mental frameworks we use to organize knowledge; they direct perception and attention, permit comprehension, and guide thinking – learners instead of learning becomes important subject matter – learners frame of reference, perspectives, experiences, etc. guide learning and creation of new knowledge
  3. Extended practice is needed to develop cognitive skills – to remember/internalize any knowledge/concept, it has to be reinforced 5-7 times (maybe more – individual difference) – practice makes perfect (true for cognition as it is with physical skills) – automated processes allow us to perform complex cognitive tasks smoothly, quickly, and without undue attention to details (saves mental energy) – e.g. speed reading and not losing out on understanding what is being read
  4. Development of self-awareness and self-regulation is critical to cognitive growth – learners are self-directed, strategic, and reflective thinkers! – exerting deliberate effort vs. S-R or letting environment direct my learning? – metacognition = the knowledge learners have about their thinking & their ability to use this awareness to regulate their own cognitive processes – learners use cognitive strategies such as rehearsal, elaboration, etc. to help them remember information – critical thinking – learners not only acquire knowledge but also ‘ways of knowing’ and ‘thinking dispositions’ (thinking styles)
  5. Motivation and beliefs are integral to cognition – other factors like learners’ motivation and belief systems also affect cognitive processes – learners’ goals, beliefs, and strategies for motivating and regulating learning, self-efficacy, outcome expectancy, self-regulated learning – individuals constantly judge their own performances and relate them to desired outcomes – these judgments are integral part of whether activities are attempted, completed, and repeated – these psychological factors determine what students choose to do, how persistent they are and how much success they enjoy
  6. Social interaction is fundamental to cognitive development Social constructivism emphasizes the importance of culture and context in understanding what occurs in society and constructing knowledge based on this understanding – this perspective is closely associated with many contemporary theories, most notably the developmental theories of Vygotsky and Bruner, and Bandura’s social cognitive theory ( – the role of social interaction and discourse in cognitive development – ‘ways of thinking’ and ‘ways of knowing’ need to be nurtured in a supportive social context – social-cognitive activities – observe others, express ideas, get feedback, etc.
  7. knowledge, strategies, and expertise are contextual – history and situation – events are inherently situational, occurring in contexts that include other events and taking some or even much of their meaning from those contexts (interrelatedness/connection among contexts and their meanings) – learning and memory are not, so much a product of machinelike input and output as they are something learners construct in a social context from their prior knowledge and intentions, and the strategies they use (difference between computer information processing vs. human mind’s information processing?)

Learners are viewed as:

  • whole beings
  • active not passive
  • unique and different from one another

Copyright August 2006 by Dr. Edward Roy Krishnan,