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After a brief hiatus for some summer travel, we’re back with the next segment of the information processing model. This week we’re talking about the link between short-term and long-term memory. The path that connects the two of them is encoding.

Remember that sensory memory lasts for a very short period of time—auditory sensory memory is about 1-3 seconds and visual sensory memory is only about 1/3rd of a second. Short-term memory last for 20-30 seconds and can be help in short-term memory through rehearsal techniques (e.g., repeating a phone number to yourself long enough to enter it into your phone). For information that we want to hang on to longer than just a few second, we need to transfer it to long-term memory, and encoding is the method of moving things our long-term memory.

You can think of encoding in lots of different terms. Encoding could be personalizing, conceptualizing, or contextualizing information. The main idea with encoding is that we’re moving new information into our long-term storage area. Ideally, we do this by linking new information with existing information, but that’s not necessarily a prerequisite. It’s often easier to find information when it’s linked to similar information—more about this next time when we talk about long-term memory and how we believe it to be structured.

If we’re not encoding information into our long-term memory, it won’t be there when we want it later. Likewise, if we’re not encoding information thoroughly enough, it won’t be as easy to find as we’d like it to be. For example, you may not be able to freely recall a piece of information but a little nudge in the right direction—a cue—might help you find where it’s stored. The more deeply the information is encoding, perhaps by virtue of repetition or exposure, the easier it is to find. For example, you aren’t likely to have much difficulty recalling the first name of your best friends’ spouse, but you may have a hard time remembering the first name of your supervisors’ boss’ spouse, whom you’ve only met once or twice as an office holiday party. However, you might be able to pick that name from a list of four options.

A lot of academic interventions are ultimately encoding strategies. Drilling math facts with flash cards is all about encoding. Practicing piano scales is about encoding. Most exercises that include lots of repetition are encoding exercises, and these can be really helpful when encoding a problem. However, what appears to be an encoding problem might actually be a sensory input problem (poor hearing will make encoding auditory information difficult and repetition might not be the best answer); it might be an attention problem; it might be a working memory problem. And if what appears to be an encoding problem is actually something else, the encoding strategies—the drilling—are going to have limited returns. This speaks to the importance of good assessment techniques that help pinpoint where problems are occurring in the information processing model. We’ll return to this idea in a few weeks when we put all the pieces together.

In the meantime, look for the next installment which was focus on long-term memory, how it’s structured, and how we store information that we want to hang on to indefinitely.

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