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Learning and memory

Learning is an act of knowing between experience and understanding. Learning consists of opening the internal circuits of thought through experience, allowing the new and the storage of newly acquired information. Learning is triggered by curiosity and motivation, but also by the problems and discrepancies that arise. Memory, and especially working memory, plays a decisive role in learning.


Sensory memory → Sensory information, i.e. perceptions, are recorded and stored unprocessed for fractions of a second (for approx. 0.5 - 2 seconds).

Ultra-short-term memory → The ultra-short-term memory processes sensory information and also reacts to the various sensory modalities (such as auditory or visual).

Working memory → This is where information is briefly held until it is decided what should actually be transferred to long-term memory and what should be discarded.

procedural memory → A part of long-term memory responsible for storing and automatically recalling learned motor skills, habits and behaviours, often without conscious control or memory.

declarative memory → A part of long-term memory responsible for storing and consciously recalling facts and events, including semantic and episodic knowledge.

Dopamine → Dopamine is a chemical messenger that controls intrinsic motivation. It has a direct effect on memory formation and helps to automatically and sustainably store a successful strategy.

Filters → So-called filters are active in short-term memory, which select the incredible amount of incoming information according to certain characteristics, and carry out an initial pre-sorting of the information.

Chunking → The necessary bundling of information into smaller sub-units, so-called "chunks" in the ultra-short-term memory.


Memory structure

Memory is a function of the nervous system to record, evaluate and store a variety of information for later retrieval. Memory consists of very short-term memory, short-term memory (working memory) and long-term memory. The term "working memory" extends the function of short-term memory, because the information received must be processed here before being transmitted to be stored later. Since working memory thus represents a kind of funnel for all incoming information, it is the performance of working memory that determines the cognitive development and memorization capacity of the brain, thus being decisive for the learning process.

Very short-term memory (or sensory memory)

Sensory information, i.e. perceptions, are captured and stored raw for fractions of a second (for about 0.5 - 2 seconds). Very short-term memory also responds to different sensory modalities (such as auditory or visual). This is also where the so-called filters come into play, which select the incredible amount of incoming information according to certain characteristics and perform a first pre-selection of the information. The information is then grouped into smaller subunits, so-called "chunks". This is necessary to be able to transfer the information to short-term memory.

Working memory

Here, the information is kept for a short time until it is decided what needs to be transferred to long-term memory and what needs to be removed. This takes from a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the amount of information, before the information is overwritten.

Working memory also has specific modalities, such as spatial/visual, articulatory/phonological, or executive. Working memory tries to place the different information (also based on previous experience) into a larger context and then decides on the relevance of the information. Working memory is limited and also shows a sudden drop in performance when multiple stimuli of the same type are presented simultaneously.

Long term memory

Storing information in long-term memory is a process that takes about 24 hours, during which neurons are developed and rebuilt. Long-term memory again has two modalities, declarative memory (knowledge) and procedural memory (behavior). Therefore, procedural memory is responsible for skill learning.

Storing information in long-term memory goes through different stages: Learning, memorization, consolidation and subsequent correlation. A proven form of reinforcement is putting what has been learned into one's own words. Unnecessary information can, of course, be forgotten again. In this whole process, absorptive and storage capacity plays an important role, as newly added information is constantly competing with previous information. Thus, existing information can be erased again before it reaches long-term memory.

Memory function

So that information can basically be stored in memory, it is classified. A particularly large number of categories are created in childhood, which then become more and more differentiated on the basis of experience. The more categories available, the easier it is to classify new information. Impulse evaluation is particularly effective when it is processed during problem solving. This is when an intrinsic reward system starts to kick in. Dopamine is released in this process. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that controls intrinsic motivation. But it also has other important tasks: Dopamine activates short-term memory during problem solving. At the same time, it initiates gene activation. This, in turn, ensures the reconstruction of neurons for storage in long-term memory. Thus, dopamine has a direct effect on memory formation and helps the automatic and long-lasting storage of a successful strategy. At the same time, people retain emotionally colored experiences better than neutral ones.

Another possibility for improving memory performance arises from the observation that apparently each sensory system has its own short-term memory. To date, only the speech, auditory and visual systems have been investigated in depth. Evidence has been provided for the existence of two separate short-term memories for verbal and visual information, but there are likely other short-term memories for sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations. Linguistic information is stored in the so-called phonological short-term memory, regardless of whether it was transmitted visually or acoustically. In contrast, non- linguistic visual information is stored in visual short-term memory. This means that it is possible for one and the same working memory to be used simultaneously. The combined linguistic and graphic way of presenting information means an increase in memorization capacity. The only thing to keep in mind is that the graphic parts should not be explained again by language, but by pictures or other visualizations. Therefore, if possible, precautions should be taken against visual memorization errors, for example, by additionally introducing all visual information once more into the language.

What does this mean for my teaching practice?

Working memory plays a crucial role in the learning process. Working memory capacity cannot be directly measured, only observed. It is important to train and increase the plasticity and thus the capacity of this intermediate memory. Visualization strategies—modes of combined linguistic and graphic representation—should be used to increase processing capacity.


Reflection question

Under what conditions is working memory overloaded?


1) In which area of the memory process does "chunking" play a role?

A) Ultra-short-term memory
B) Working memory
C) Long-term memory

2) How does the intrinsic reward system work?

A) Release of dopamine
B) Activation of short-term memory
C) Remodelling of neurons


1️⃣ → A) Ultra-short-term memory
2️⃣ → A) Release of dopamine

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