The Mother of All Wisdom: Memory and Learning, Part II

In the previous blog post, I talked about sensory memory and how it affects learning, which, it is fair to say, is not very much.

It’s only after something has attracted our attention and we focus on it does it make its way into our short-term memory, whereupon we decide if it’s 1) important to us personally, 2) what we are actively looking for, 3) something we need to take action on, or 4) surprising in some way.

What is worth remembering?

So, let’s say you’re deciding on your outfit for work today. You quickly check the weather (cool and rainy) and your schedule (client meeting) and keep these in mind as you peruse your closet. You also remember some facts from the past that are relevant to this situation (hot conference room, absent navy suit due to a chocolate ice cream mishap).

All this information mingles in your head until you finally decide to go with a sweater and a light waterproof jacket. Then, poof – it’s gone! Just like that Wi-Fi password you forget after leaving the café or the freeway exit number you need temporarily, most things in your short-term memory get discarded once they’ve served their purpose.

For stuff that needs to percolate a little longer, repetition keeps it fresh in your mind until you’re done with it. If you keep at it, eventually it sinks into your long-term memory, though there are better ways to achieve that. Some facts fade faster if they lack importance.

Now, consider these news snippets: first, it’s 12 degrees Celsius today. Do you need to remember this for any reason? If it’s unusual weather, or if it impacts your plans, you might.

Next up, the Dow Jones is up 56 points, a 0.5 percent rise. Similar deal here. Is this a departure from the norm? Does it matter to you financially?

Remember – it’s all about what stands out and matters to you when it comes to keeping these bits of info in your metaphorical mental filing cabinet.

What’s the limit?

Ever wondered how much information you can juggle in your short-term memory? There’s been quite a bit of research on this, and while you might have heard of the “magic number 7±2” rule, it’s actually not set in stone—it varies.

Now, imagine you’re trying to remember the data that I mentioned above as an example—the temperature and Dow Jones index score. Chances are, you’ll struggle to recall it without double-checking. The main reason for this is that these numbers don’t hold personal significance beyond being examples in this post, so you’ve most likely already discarded them.

Quick Test Time

Read this sequence of numbers and then try repeating it with your eyes closed:

6 7 1 8

Probably not too tough, right? Four separate digits usually fit well within working memory’s limits.

Now, let’s try a bit more:

9 3 4 8 7 1 6 2 5

That’s a bit trickier. You might remember all nine digits, but if you forget some, they’re likely from the middle. This is the primacy and recency effect at play—remembering the beginning and end of a list more than the middle.

Now, for an easier one:

100 500 800

Despite having the same number of digits, it’s simpler. You’re chunking it, thinking of it as [first three digits] + [next three digits] + [last three digits]. Three chunks, not nine individual ones.

Even easier:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

This is just one chunk for you—[digits 1–9 in order]. Chunking’s power lies in similarities, sequences, or items in your long-term memory.

Last challenge:

9 1 7 6 1 9 2 8 8 0

Unless you happen to live in the the specific area in the U.S. where these are local zip codes, it’s likely too much to hold in working memory.

How does this affect learning?

As seen above, we can employ chunking to assist with information retention and organization.

Imagine you are planning to take a trip abroad for the first time in your life and need to figure out and write down everything you need to do to make sure it goes without a hitch.

Which of the following to-do lists would be easier to navigate and remember?

  • Research possible destinations
  • Research weather climate for the time of year
  • Research relative costs
  • Research hotels and rentals
  • Check reviews and ratings
  • Select and book your place to stay
  • Compare airline prices
  • Check dates and possible routes
  • Pick the best airline/travel times and book
  • Check tourist visa requirements
  • Check insurance policies
  • Check your passport is still valid
  • Decide what type of vehicle you will need
  • Shop around for different rental companies
  • Make your decision and book your rental vehicle

You’d most like agree that trying to process the long list of steps would appear quite mentally taxing, whereas sorting the steps into separate groups of three would make it seem like a lot less work and easier to keep track of.

Short-term memory acts as barrier to long-term memory, so if the information you are trying to get across is presented in an overwhelming or overly complex way, it may seriously hinder your learner’s ability to retain it.


Short-term memory helps us to retain useful information for a short while until we need to recall it. We naturally remember things better if it is relevant to us, or is needed for our daily lives at home or at work.

To assist our learners, we can use chunking to help organize the information and make it easier to process and recall.

Stay tuned for the next article, where I’ll be talking about short-term memory’s big brother – long-term memory.

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