Short- and Long-Term Memory

Thursday, I got in a solid chapter on short-term memory from “brain rules” by John Medina. Today, however, brought a major headache and some severe energy depletion, so instead of a lunchtime read of Chapter 6, it was more like an afternoon read on the couch with the rain and the puppy. While it sounds pleasant, the headache, the rain, and the puppy were diversions as I read, so I didn’t attend to everything as I should have, but by revisiting it here again, hopefully, I will commit some of this information to long-term memory.

However, before I go down that path, let me talk to you a little bit about the Twitter conversation I was a part of last night.


#lrnchat is a place for people interested in the topic of learning who use the social messaging service Twitter to learn from one another and discuss how to help other people learn. On Thursday nights from 8:30-9:30 pm EST, people gather around their computers and participate in a conversation regarding learning. Last night, the talk was of the use of analogies in helping people to learn. It played nicely into the previous two chapters of wiring and attention by showing how instructors could use analogies as scaffolds, gap-fillers, ideas to help a learner make a jump from not knowing something to comprehension. It was a nice tie-in to chapters 3 and 4. If you ever get a chance, you should jump in on the fun! It’s always over much too soon.

I remember when I started down the path of becoming an instructional designer…one of my first courses was on educational psychology. We had to learn about the memory and how it worked. They made it sound so compact, precise, and easy–this committing to memory, but reading Medina’s insights, the study of the brain and memory is a constant moving target.

Chapter 5-Short-term Memory

Rule #5 – Repeat to remember.

Medina states that the brain has many types of (mostly) semi-autonomous memory systems, but the most important is the “declarative” system. That system which states “what we know.” Adding declarative knowledge involves the processes of encoding, storing, retrieving, and forgetting. Short-term memory is all about the encoding.

Research by Hermann Ebbinghaus showed that there were two types of memories: those that involve conscious awareness and those that don’t. Sometimes, you are consciously trying to make memories and other times you don’t even know your making memories (Medina uses the example of rote memorization vs. learning to ride a bike.)

When you take information into your brain, it is split into all types of fragments and stored in different regions of the cortex. (The cortex is the thin blanket like covering and rooting deep into the brain and the hippocampus.) The hippocampus is said to be specific to the conversion of short-term information into long-term forms. And nobody is sure how it happens, but when information comes in for encoding, it is splattered all across the brain.

To encode the information, the data has to be converted into some ‘code’ to be organized and filed to be retrieved later…it can be automatic or deliberate. Deliberate processing is the evil twin of automatic processing….it’s hard. Encoding involves different kind of intellectual skills and the transformation of outside stimuli into the electrical language of the brain, that can be found and recalled later.

It has been shown that the more elaborately we encode a memory initially, the higher the potential is for remembering it later, and learning from it. Additionally, wherever the memory was stored, there are trace pathways that allow access. The more those pathways are used, the more probable, you will be able to return to it at a later date. And, a phenomenon that I was already aware of was that if you reproduce the environment in which you learn something, the better the chance you will remember something. So if I learn how to dissect a frog in a lab that is near freezing, chances are if I take a test on it or have to reperform the procedure, I will do best if I do it in a really cold lab.

Medina wraps the chapters up with strategies we could use to make life easier for our learners. The quality of the encoding stage is one of the single greatest predictors of learning success…so what can we do to make sure the learner has several ways to access the information they learn? Do we provide meaningful engagement, opportunities to tie it to other information, and real world examples to facilitate transfer? This chapter spoke heavily to the “engaged scholarship” initiative that Penn State is pursuing. Immerse the students in the environment, and they will learn so much more deeply. Medina also talks about compelling introductions. Like the hooks he mentioned before, you really have to grab the learner. From what we know of encoding, the early moments are precious. And finally, he speaks again to the environment. If you are going to learn Spanish, immerse yourself in a Spanish environment, travel to the country, create a room that is Spanish only. Establish a formal and intimate relationship with the learning to transfer to the action.

Chapter 6: Long-term Memory

Rule #6: Remember to repeat

Medina starts out with a metaphor (not an analogy) of a loading dock with boxes. The boxes are being stored in a warehouse and they are supposed to represent the conversion of short-term to long-term memory. It doesn’t work that way, though.

Working (short-term) memory is a busy, temporary workspace where we retain some auditory, visual, and executive components of information. The conversion of these events into long-term memories is called “consolidation.” Once memories are consolidated and somewhat stable, they are called long-term memories.

When memories are recalled they are retrieved and there are two types of retrieval systems: the library and the crime scene models. The library model is, as it sounds, like a library. Memories are stored like books on a shelf. The crime scene model is where we have to infer, detect and reconstruct what possibly was stored. We retrieve information both ways. However, the passage of time is detrimental to our stored memories.

Repetition has been shown to increase the longevity and quality of a memory. Repetition, not only as in rote memorization, but talking about an idea, or even blogging about it. It’s what we should be doing after every conference we attend, book we read. It’s called “elaborative rehearsal.” Additionally, the spacing of the input plays a huge role. If I write and talk about this book heavily for the next few days or weeks, I’m certainly going to retain a lot of information. However, after time, if I don’t revisit it, the memory will go away. Or like studying for a test…if my son crams the day before as opposed to pacing the learning throughout the semester, he’s not going to be able to keep it all in. Small chunks over periods of time help aid in retention. Another predictor of long-term memory is sustained interest. If you are excited about something or passionate about it, you develop a sort of relationship with it that, if you keep going back to it, you sort of create a muscle memory…you can jump in faster than you did before.

There are interactions between the cortex, the medial temporal lobe and the hippocampus that creates a loop of constant information involving sensory input, electrical reactions, and system consolidation. It’s all very exciting and all very hard to explain, but by the time it’s done, the memory can be said to be created. Medina says it can take years for a memory to be set in place.

Medina also addresses forgetting as that which allows us to prioritize events and help us survive. If we don’t need something to survive, we forget it.

Again, he considers ways to help learners learn. Why do we shove students into schools structured on long days with long and uninteresting chunks of instruction? He plays to the concept of project-based learning cycles, where learners rotate through concepts at least three times and they are scaffolded up to a new level each time. He talks to communities of practice and engaged scholarship. Why is it so hard to make these visions become realities?



Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.




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