Understand the basics of cognitive science to design effective e-learning modules: (1/4) How memory works?

Understand the basics of cognitive science to design effective e-learning modules: (1/4) How memory works?

As the adoption of e-learning becomes more widespread and technology evolves, instructional designers are increasingly innovating in pedagogical approaches and multimedia formats they use.

But, how could we distinguish between what brings real added value for learning and what only serves to produce the "Wow" effect?

The 3 keys of learning efficiency:

Studies have proved that the success of a digital learning system depends on three important principles:

  • Optimization of the cognitive load or, in other words, the mental resources needed to acquire learning
  • The active posture of the learner
  • The learner's engagement in the learning process

In order to understand these concepts and deduce best practices, we first need to understand some basic principles about the functioning of human memory.                     

Cognitive architecture:

The human brain implements three types of memories in a learning process:


The 3 components of memory

The sensory memory is a transient memory that retains impressions from the stimuli of the environment through the five senses. This impression is then transferred to the working memory to be stored for processing. This processing is necessary for the information to be then encoded and stored in the long-term memory. The information can be retrieved later by transferring the information back from the long-term memory to the working memory.

The capacity of the sensory memory is counted in milliseconds for visual elements and seconds for audio elements. The capacity of the working memory is counted in seconds. Long-term memory, in turn, holds information for hours to a lifetime.

How the sensory memory works?

The particularity of the sensory memory is that it captures stimuli's information very accurately but keeps them briefly. Sensory memory transmits information to short-term memory through Attention which  consists of focusing on one aspect of the environment while ignoring the rest. This means that sensory memory unconsciously ignores all the information it considers useless in a given context without involving any conscious mental effort. Unlike other types of memory, its capacity cannot be improved through rehearsal. The goal of learning will thus be to stimulate sensory memory enough to retain the most relevant information.

Example: When a child is focused in his game, he may not hear his parents call him. His attention only transmits information coming from the game.

How working memory operates? As we have seen previously, the working memory holds information shortly to make it available for processing. If the whole process is called working memory, the storage itself is called Short term memory. Unlike sensory memory, information is stored consciously and used in conjunction with long term memory representations to understand language, carry out reasonings and make decisions. Short term memory retains 5 to 9 elements at a timen ; some recent studies even show that it doesn't exceed 4 items. Two methods allow short-term memory to retain information in order to store it in long-term memory: maintenance repetition and chunking.

  • Maintenance rehearsal or repetition: scientific studies show that non rehearsed information is gradually lost to completely disappear from memory within 20 seconds. Maintenance rehearsal consists in repeating the information in order to keep it active in short term memory and not forget it. This concept is not to be confused with spaced repetition, which consists of repeating or revising information at increasing intervals of time in order to keep it in long-term memory.

Example: This is the technique you use to remember a phone number.

  • Chunking: it consists of grouping pieces of information into more significant units based on similarities or other organization methods. This method optimizes the use of the storage capacity of short-term memory. This chunking relies generally on making connections between the elements of information or by associating them with existing knowledge schemes in the long-term memory.

Example: Memorize this series of numbers:  1914191819391945. It will be very difficult to retain this series of numbers by retaining digit per digit, it would be equivalent to retaining 16 independent elements. But, if we analyze this sequence, we notice that it can be chunked into 4 dates: 1914 1918 1939 1945. If we use our history knowledge, we will notice that these are the start and end dates of world wars in a chronological order. This is how we can remember all the dates thanks to the chunking with a minimum mental effort.

How long-term memory works?

 The goal of long-term memory is to retain and recall information items efficiently for the longest possible time. Without going into all the details of how it works, we can say that encoding is essential for memory efficiency. Here are three rules related to the encoding of information in memory:

  • The context of encoding: recall of information is easier when the context of recovery corresponds to the context of encoding.

Example1: You will recognize more easily a co-worker if you bump into him in a professional context than if you meet him in a crowded mall.

Example2: It is easier to remember a password while typing it than if someone asks you for it orally.

  • Levels of processing: active processing of information items is important for long term memory retention. More the processing involves analysis, interpretation, comparison and elaboration, better is the resulting memorization. Example: we will be more likely to retain the name of a new fruit if we analyze its properties (shape, color, name) and identify similarities with other fruits.
  • The impact of emotions: When emotions are associated to the encoding of an information, retention is deeper, and encoding is easier. Example: We all remember details about painful or very happy events even in our childhood: an injury, the birth of a child, what we were doing when we learned that a parent passed away, hilarious movie sequences, etc.

Far from covering exhaustively neuroscience knowledge about human memory, we now have the tools to understand how learning can be enhanced through a better knowledge of cognitive principles. In the next article, we will discuss the concepts of cognitive load and share practical recommendations to design effective digital learning contents and systems. We invite you to take this 5 questions’ quiz  what we have learned about memory components. 

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