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The difference between short-term, working and long-term memory

The difference between short-term, working and long-term memory

3 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory
  • The science of learning

Our memory is the centre of all learning. It stores and processes any knowledge we need to learn or use in the future.

However, it’s made up of several sections, which have different properties. The three main types of memory include short-term memory, working memory and long-term memory. By understanding the key differences between them and their specific applications in the classroom, we can make learning more effective for students.

So, let’s take a closer look at the differences between short-term memory, working memory and long-term memory…

1. Short-term Memory

What is short-term memory?

Short-term memory has a very short duration, only storing information for a brief period of time. Research suggests that this number is around 15 to 30 seconds, unless you use rehearsal strategies such as reading the information out loud. After this period of time, the information is either lost or transferred to our long-term memory.

Our short-term memory also has a very small capacity. In this seminal study, researcher George Miller suggested that people can only store around 7 items at a time in this memory structure. 

How can we utilise it? 

We can use many strategies to help students maximise their limited short-term memory capacity. Some of these include:

  • Mentally rehearsing the information
  • Writing the information down
  • Chunking by breaking down the information into smaller sections
  • Using acronyms to remember the information
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2. Working Memory  

What is working memory? 

We often see the terms “working memory” and “short-term memory” used interchangeably. Despite there being an overlap between the two structures, there are a few important differences which make them distinct.

Working memory is the type of short-term memory that combines multiple components together and is used to plan and carry out behaviour. It also incorporates information from our long-term memory and applies it to new information. In essence, working memory is a type of short-term memory that is important for higher level cognition.

How can we utilise it? 

Working memory is important for paying attention. Due to its small capacity, there are a few techniques you can use in the classroom to help students make the most of their working memory:

  • Recall – Read a list of words and ask them to recall as much as they can without notes.
  • Visualise – Visualising the information can help transfer the information better.
  • Simplify – Help students break large chunks of information into smaller sections.
  • Be mindful – Practising mindfulness daily can actually help students block out distractions.

3. Long-term Memory

What is long-term memory?

For learning to take place, information must be moved from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. This type of memory allows us to learn information and has a huge capacity. It also has a massive duration, with memories being stored for from a few days to decades.

In school, this is probably the most important one – this is where the information that students will need to retrieve for exams will be stored, for example. 

How can we utilise it?

As the rate of forgetting is fastest within the first 24 hours of learning, which techniques can we use to ensure that the information is transferred to students’ long-term memory? Well, research suggests that these are some of the most effective learning techniques:

  • Retrieval Practice – Generating an answer to a question helps strengthen memory traces.
  • Spacing – Spreading out learning over different sessions helps reduce the likelihood that information is forgotten. Essentially, for transfer into long-term memory, learning little but often beats learning a lot all at once.
  • Daily and weekly reviews – These are based on Rosenshine’s first and tenth Principles of Instruction, which highlight the importance of reviewing information frequently. It helps increase the likelihood that the information is well connected and embedded in students’ long-term memory. 

Final thoughts

Learning takes time and effort, and information needs to go through a number of stages for us to truly remember it. At first, new information is stored in students’ short-term and working memory. However, these have a very small capacity. Therefore, students need to make the best of different techniques for the information to be transferred into their long-term memory.

Knowing the differences in memory structure and how to utilise them can help enhance students learning. Using these different techniques can also reduce the chance that students forget the information.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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