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Memory, Schema & Learning

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

“Of all the things our minds and brains do, memory may be the most important thing.”

Dr. Michelle Miller, Professor of Psychological Sciences, Northern Arizona University

Memory is essential to learning. Through advancements in research and technology, we continue to learn more about memory and the human learning process. Human Cognitive Architecture (HCA) describes the way in which information is processed. Understanding the relationship between HCA, the memory system, and schema is critical to teaching and learning.

Research on HCA continues to provide new insight on human cognition and memory so it is important to start with the memory system and definitions from the literature. The memory system has three parts: (a) sensory memory, (b) working memory, and (c) long-term memory. Both Figures 1 and 2 highlight the three parts of the memory system as well as include schema. The breadth of research on memory is extensive so each term below includes multiple definitions to provide a robust understanding.

Figure 1

Memory System (Edwards et al., 2015)

Figure 2

Representation of Mental Architecture (Jordan et al., 2019)

To better understand sensory, working, and long-term memory, it is important to review the literature. Under each memory system and under schema are quotes from seminal publications that examine memory and provide critical insight about the human learning process.

Sensory Memory (SM)

"Sensory memory consists of sensory information retained in an unprocessed form in the sensory system through which it entered. This form of memory is short lived (0.5–3 seconds) but has a large capacity" (Hall & Stewart, 2010, p. 96).

"Sensory memory is the capacity for briefly retaining the large amounts of information that people encounter daily” (Siegler & Alibali, 2005 as cited in Camina & Güell, 2017, para. 17).

"There are three types of sensory memory: iconic memory, echoic memory, and haptic memory. "Iconic memory retains information that is gathered through sight, echoic memory retains information gathered through auditory stimuli and haptic memory retains data acquired through touch" (Camina & Güell, 2017, para. 17).

Working Memory (WM)

"Working memory refers to our ability to manipulate and make use of the information held in short-term memory, for example calculating the change you should get back from a shopkeeper or reading and recalling a phone number while you dial. Information only stays in our working memory buffer for a couple of minutes. Working memory is comprised of two parts, the phonological loop that processes verbal information and the visuospatial sketch pad that handles visual information, coordinated by a central executive system" (Nursey & Phelps, 2016, p. 170).

"Working memory is the small amount of information that can be held in mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks, in contrast with long-term memory, the vast amount of information saved in one’s life. Working memory is one of the most widely-used terms in psychology" (Cowan, 2013, 197).

"Given its fundamental role in thought it is surprising that working memory has such a severely limited capacity: we can only hold a few thoughts in our consciousness at once" (Miller & Buschman, 2015, para. 3).

Long-Term Memory (LTM)

"Long-term memory refers to unlimited storage information to be maintained for long periods, even for life" (Camina & Güell, 2017, p. 6).

"Our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory" (Kirschner et al., 2010, p. 76).

"Most cognitive scientists believe that the storage capacity of LTM is unlimited and that is a permanent record of everything that you have learnt. You are not directly conscious of LTM. Awareness of its contents and functioning is filtered through working (conscious) memory" (Kirschner, 2002, pp. 2-3).


A schema is a "framework of acquired knowledge, skills or attitudes implemented within a network of connected neurons in which the memory traces of associated information have been stored that, when activated, can alter the manner in which new information is processed, including memory encoding, consolidation and retrieval” (Fernández & Morris, 2018 as cited in Alonso et al., 2020, p.2 ).

"A schema can hold a huge amount of information, yet is processed as a single unit in working memory. Schemata can integrate information elements and production rules and become automated, thus requiring less storage and controlled processing" (Kirschner, 2002, p. 3 ).

"Effective learning must be focused on the generation of schemas; that is, single, large, extensive information chunks that are retrievable for use at any time and requiring no further processing [1], [2]. Effective teaching and learning techniques should therefore foster and support creation of schemas" (Edwards et al., 2015, p. 3026).

Being able to differentiate between sensory, working, and long-term memory is important in higher education and PK-12 education. Recognizing that working memory capacity is very limited is critical. There are many factors that affect learning and memory, including the role of attention in the memory process, the importance of practice and sleep for memory consolidation, and the effects of emotions and stress on learning and memory. Understanding memory and how to balance cognitive load is essential when designing courses, preparing lectures, and creating assessments to support student success.

Author: Dr. Kristen Betts

Learn more about how INTERACT123 can support your work with course/curriculum design, optimizing memory, and student success.


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