What do I know about Memory?

15th October 2015

What do I know about Memory?

What do I Know about Memory?

Coralyn Bradshaw Co-Founder


15th October 2015


As the new academic year gets underway, as educators, it’s worth asking ourselves “ What do I know about memory?”  The more we understand about memory and how it is stored and retrieved, the more we can help our learners to become effective language learners.

Contrary to the collective idea of a personal  ‘memory bank’, memory is not stored in a singular place in the brain. It is, in fact, a collection of complex electrochemical responses, activated through multiple sensory channels, and stored in unique and separate neuronal networks throughout the brain.  The following overview of memory types is designed to help you gain an insight into how memory works. Memory can be classified:

By time

Immediate perceptual memory lasts  less than one second. For example, long enough to interpret a string of frame images in a moving picture.

Working memory/short term memory can maintain information for up to 20 seconds, or slightly longer if rehearsed.  For example, long enough to dial a phone number you have just looked up.

Long term memory can last a life time and typical includes memories of events from one’s personal past.

By manner

a) Explicit memory/declarative memory  is encoded and retrieved consciously. It is achieved through purpose and effort. Learning how to spell has an explicit memory function. Most learning in school is explicit.

There are two explicit memory subtypes:

(i) Semantic memory includes most academic and professional knowledge, ideas, facts, names, dates, numbers, technical information etc.  It is in fact the weakest of the retrieval systems , and is triggered by language and association. It developed relatively late with the advent of books, schools, literacy.

(ii) Episodic memory/autobiographical memory is driven by location and circumstances. It uses the context of the memory as a prompt. For example, the question “ What do you remember about your wedding day?”  will prompt episodic recall of events.  Before the advent of books, early civilisations relied on storytelling to relay their history down the generations. This is a perfect example of episodic memory.

b) Implicit/nondeclarative memory  is encoded and retrieved instinctually. It is achieved organically or automatically. Knowing that fire burns is learned implicitly in childhood.  This type of memory function often is responsible for the survival of the species.

There are four implicit memory subtypes:

(i) Procedural memory /motor memory involves learned tasks or skills, for example, fishing, riding a bike, driving a car. It represents the ‘how to’ in memory. This type of memory is laid down through practice and repetition until it becomes automatic.

(ii) Reflexive memory/stimulus response memory is basic to human survival. This implicit memory pathway codes, stores and retrieves information instantly and instinctually. The memory is laid down at a young age, unconsciously and accompanied usually by strong emotion. A good example is the fearful response to snakes.

(iii) Sensory conditioning involves any of the five senses memory pathways to the brain. For example, the visual memory is perceived through the eyes and stored as concrete images in the visual cortex. It is best retrieved by visual cues, such as pictures, objects, faces etc. The perfect example is when, for example, a certain smell, brings back instant memories of a place, event or person.

(iv) Emotional memory refers to information stored as a result of intense sensory stimulation. Hence intense positive emotion attached to a learning context will produce fast learning. Intense negative emotion attached to a learning situation will produce negative associations with the learning context.

To conclude: Your classroom learning needs to appeal not only to explicit but also to implicit  memory pathways. Remember.......

                                                                    WE FORGET ....

..that which is insignificant to us

..when we are not engaged

..what we don’t practice, review or use

..when something is too painful to remember

..when prolonged stress interferes with brain functioning

..when we don’t consciously activate a memory cue.



‘The Great Memory Book’  Karen Markowitz and Eric Jensen: Corwin Press 1990

‘A Celebration of Neurons’ Robert Sylwester:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development  1995

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