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Chapter 9
Theories of Learning




Learning a piece of information at one point in time does not guarantee that you will remember it later on.


Many variables determine what information get into memory in the first place and what information stays there long enough for you to recall it when you need it.


Memory theorists make a distinction between learning and Memory.  They also refer frequently to the process of Storage, encoding, and retrieval. 





Learning is viewed, quite simply, as the acquisition of new information.  Learning involves a relatively permanent change in mental associations due to experience.


Memory is related to the ability to recall information that has previously been learned.


The distinction between learning and memory is important because not everything that is learned is necessarily remembered over the long run.


Storage is the process of putting new information in memory.


Encoding as people store information in memory, they often modify it in some way; this process of encoding often helps people store information.  Example


I have a combination lock for which the first two set of numbers are 22 and 8.  I quickly learn the two numbers by encoding them as the day and month of my birthday.


Retrieval is the process by which people find information they have previously stored in memory so they can use it again.





Memory theorists such as William James, Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin propose that human memory has three components:


Sensory register

Short term memory

Long term memory


Information first enters the sensory register, where it is held for a very short time (a few second at most).

If the information is processed in a particular way, it moves on to short-term memory.


Information is held in short-term memory for a minute or less, however, it must be processed further if it is to move on to long term memory.



Lets look further at the Dual Storage Model:





The first component of the dual store model, the Sensory register (also called sensory memory) holds incoming information long enough for you to decide if it should be passed on.





Capacity. The capacity of the sensory register, as far as psychologists can tell is unlimited.


Form of Storage.  Information is stored in the sensory register basically in the form in which it was sensed, that is visual information is stored in a visual compartment;  auditory in put is stored in an auditory compartment.


At this point, information has not yet been understood or interpreted by the individual.  In other words, the register holds information before it is processed.





Information remains in the sensory register for only a very brief time, but measuring the exact duration is difficult.  Why?  One problem in studying the characteristics of information in the sensory register is that when you ask people to think about or otherwise process something that theyve stored there, the information automatically moves on to working memory and so is no longer in the place where we want to study it.





If you want to want move information from the sensory register into working memory, it appears that, at least in most cases, we must pay attention to it.


One reason that people dont remember something that theyve seen or heard, previously, is that they never really paid attention to it.  For example:

If you are sitting in class with your mind a thousand miles away from the professors lecture, you might say that you forgot what the instructor said or that you never heard it in the first place.  The reality of the situation is somewhere in between, the lecture reached your sensory register but was not sufficiently processed to move on to working memory.




Certain kinds of information tend to draw attention, whereas other kinds do not.  The following are some important factors affecting what people pay attention to and therefore what they store in working memory.







Personal Significance


Lets look at these factors individually:




Which of the following letters first draw your eye?


         A  B  C  D  E  F  G


You probably noticed the B and E before the other letters because of their larger size.  Attention tends to be drawn to large objects, a fact that newspaper publishers employ when they typeset front page headlines in larger letters and that advertisers use when they put potentially unimportant information in fine print.




Bright colors and loud noises attract attention.  Teachers speak louder than usualBE QUIET when they want to get their students attention.




Unusual in some way tend to draw peoples attention:









Objects that are incongruous . those that dont make sense within their context tend to capture peoples attention.  For example


I took a walk to the rabbit this morning.


Did you spend more time looking at the word rabbit than at the other words?  If so, it may  have been because rabbit does not make much sense within the context of the sentence.




A nude body flashing through a crowded room usually draws the attention of just about everyone present.  Words such as blood and murder also are attention getters because of their emotional overtones.


Personal Significance


Individuals tend to pay attention to things that are important to them at a given point in time.  When a student sits in front of a television set with an open textbook, the stimulus that the student attends to, the television of the book depends in large part on which stimulus is more closely related to the students motives at that particular time. 


If the textbook is interesting or if an important examination is scheduled for the next day, the student will attend to the book.  But if a popular situation comedy or a cliff-hanging soap opera is on, or if the textbook is dry and uninteresting, the student may very well forget that the text is even in the same room!





Life would be simpler if people didnt have to choose certain stimuli to pay attention to but could instead attend to everything that they record in their sensory registers.  Unfortunately, it turns out that people are incapable of attending to everything at once. For example, at first glance, what do you see in the picture below:











But if you look at the black spacers on either side of the gobbler, you should also be able to see two silhouettes (Peter and Paul) staring at each other. Now try this, see if you can focus on both the goblet and the two silhouettes at exactly the same time.  Most people cant.


The Peter Paul gobbler illustrates a phenomenon that early Gestalt psychologists called figure ground.





Atkinson and Shiffrin used the term short term memory ( also called working memory) to refer to a storage mechanism that holds information for a brief time after it is attended to so that it can be mentally processed.


Other Characteristic of working memory that you should become familiar with are


Capacity (limited)

Form of Storage (mostly auditory)

Duration (short term)





Long term memory is the part of the memory system that retains information for a relatively long period of time.  Some things stored in long term memory may be easily retrieved, whereas others, even though it may effect our behavior, may be more difficult or even impossible to bring into conscious awareness.


Long term memory is clearly the most complex component of the human memory system.  As such, it has been studied more extensively than either the sensory register or working memory.




Capacity ( As far as theorists can determine, the capacity is unlimited)


Form of Storage ( Visual information is stored in one way and language information may be stored in another way. However, most psychologist agree that the bulk of information is stored semantically, that is, in terms of meaning. Individuals rarely remember everything word for word but in bits and pieces.


Duration (Theorists disagree regarding the duration of long term memory, some believe that information, once stored in long term memory, remains there permanently.  Others, however, believe that information can disappear from long term memory through a variety of forgetting processes.




Clearly, not all theorists agree about exactly how memory is structured or how it functions.  But regardless of how we conceptualize the human memory system, there are several things we can conclude about how memory operates.  Lets make a few generalizations and consider their implications for educational practices.


  • Attention is essential for learning:  Attention is critical for long term retention of information.  People will not learn the things that they dont process in some way, and paying attention is the first step that they must take.


  • Different people may attend differently to the same stimulus:


  • People can process only a limited amount of information at a time:


  • Memory is selective (Because most people receive more information than they can process and remember, they must continually make choices about what things to focus on and what things to ignore).


  • The limited capacity of working memory is not necessarily a bad thing: (the working memory bottleneck forces learners to condense, organize, and synthesize the information they receive).





Memory theorists use some terminology that is uniquely their own.  Storage means putting information in memory, encoding involves changing information to store it more effectively, and retrieval is the process of finding information already stored in memory.


Attention capacity is limited. People usually cannot pay attention to more than one demanding task at any given time.


Information goes through the following process:


1st   Sensory Register     (very few seconds)


2nd  Working Memory    (5 to 20 seconds, unless it is processed)


3rd   Long term Memory (has the capacity to hold information for a long period of time, however, there is much disagreement among theorist as to how long information can be retained).



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