Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Working Memory Capacity, Encoding, and Retrieval from Long-Term Memory

In educational psychology you often hear the terms working memory capacity, encoding and retrieval from long-term memory. In this post, I will provide an explanation of each word or term and provide a brief example.

Working memory, according to Ormrod (2006), is a “component of memory that holds and actively thinks about and processes a limited amount of information” (p. 193). Working memory is often referred to as short-term memory. Ormrod elaborates further about working memory by stating that “working memory just doesn’t have room to hold all the information at once – it has a limited capacity” (p. 194). The role of working memory capacity plays in a students’ ability to solve problems is demonstrated in the example of a five year-old pre-school student working to find all of the matching pieces of a matching game. If there are 20 pieces (10 pairs) the child will be more successful in remembering where previously viewed pieces are on the table. If there at 60 pieces (30 pairs) there are too many pieces for the child to process in their working memory and remember their place on the table. The child’s working memory is at its capacity as too many different memory cads have been viewed.

Encoding is simply “changing the format of new information as it is being stored in memory” (Ormrod, 2006, p. 190). I’ll use the five year-old pre-school student again as an example. A classroom of pre-school students is learning about what to do in an emergency; from recognizing emergencies to calling for assistance. A police officer comes to talk to the children and gives each child a short coloring book with pictures following the four steps the children should follow in the event of an emergency. One of the pictures shows fire fighters arriving to the emergency with the traditional Dalmatian (dog) on top of the fire engine. The next day the teacher asks each child to describe what to do in an emergency. One of the children describes one of the four steps to take as needing to call for the fire fighters with the Dalmatian and they insist that the dog must be present to help with the emergency.

Long-term memory retrieval is the process of “remembering previously stored information and “finding” it in memory” (Ormrod, 2006, p. 190). A concrete example of this can be found in the previous example of pre-school students who learned about what to do in an emergency. It has been over one year since one of the pre-school students received instruction about what to do in an emergency. The child’s grandmother is staying the night and watching the child while the parents go out to dinner and attend a concert. During meal time, the grandmother begins to choke on some food and falls to the ground. The child must retrieve from their long-term memory the four steps to take to in an emergency if they are to help their grandmother. The response the child has to the situation (problem-solving) depends on how the child encoded the information they learned about emergencies over a year ago.

Ormrod, J.E. (2006). Educational psychology: Developing learners. (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Merrill Prentice Hall.

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