Happy Learners - Short Term Memory

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Short Term Memory and Learning

What is short term memory?

Short-term memory is our capacity to remember sensory information such as spoken words or the layout of a map for very brief periods of time. Working memory involves a range of cognitive processes that enable us to manipulate, combine and make sense of information stored in short-term memory and draw on previously learnt resources in long term memory and the products of our thinking. For example, if a person was to visit London they might study a map of the London Underground and process a question like "How do I get from Waterloo Station to Tower Bridge?" before making decisions on the best route to take.

How much can you store in short term memory?

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A good anology for understanding short-term memory capacity is to think about a simple book shelf. As you place books on it, it fills up. Once full you can only place another book on the shelf if another comes off. So a bookshelf is limited to a certain capacity and so is short-term memory. However, whereas books will remain on a book shelf, our short-term memories tend to fade away very quickly and are generally lost within about twenty seconds. It is bit like staring at a bright light that leaves an image in our eyes for some seconds after we look away. To stop forgetting things in our short term memory we can actively rehearse the information we store. For example, we might repeat in our head a phone number we are trying to remember or a list of drinks for guests to our homes. Rehearsing information in our short term memory helps to refresh it and prevent it from fading away. Unfortunately, if we become distracted this interrupts this rehearsal process and consequently we lose the information.

How can I measure short-term memory?

A simple (and blunt) measure of short term memory could be to see and/or hear several numbers in a sequence and be able to recall this a few seconds later. The amount of numbers that can be recalled is the measure of the individual's short term memory. If the numbers are presentally orally then sometimes this short term memory may be referred to as auditory memory. Where numbers, letters or shapes to be remembered are presented visually this is often known as visual memory. However, short-term memory is more complicated than this test and an individual's performance will vary depending on the nature of what is trying to be remembered and their familiarity with it. Thus this test should only be used as an indicative measure to inform planning of support or as a basis for referral to a suitably qualified professional.

What are the implications for learning?

Short-term memory capacity develops through childhood to reach its maximum about the age of 14 years. For children below 14 they will have a reduced capacity that will impact the amount they can process at any one time. For pre-school and younger primary children their memory will limit the complexity of language, literacy and mathematical tasks they can manage rather than any limitations of cognitive ability. Teachers and parents at home need to patiently recognise that children will quickly and easily forget anything that they try to remember particularly if giving more than they can actively rehearse. Effective teaching involves breaking up learning into very small chunks and continually reinforcing this. Providing the child with repeated access to the learning through the lesson helps to scaffold the learning helping to overcome the forgetting that will take place. The same principles apply for older students where the most effective lessons will be ones which limit the amount of learning content and use mini-plenaries and visual resources to continually reinforce and consolidate the learning.

What strategies help support short term memory?

Short term memory is an important component in working memory and so the strategies for working memory apply also.

You may also be interested in the pages about:

Memory and Learning

Working Memory