How do the cognitive processes of attention and memory affect learning?
Attention and memory are essential to the learning process, which involves how learners pay
attention to new information, process and understand it, and store it in memory.
The human brain absorbs and processes information in stages.[i] First, environmental input from the five senses is received and very briefly stored in sensory memory. Some of the information then moves on to working memory, where the material is consciously analyzed and manipulated. New information deemed valuable is combined with existing knowledge and encoded in long-term memory, which acts as the “file cabinet” that can store potentially limitless amounts of information.
Understanding this multistage process of absorbing information into long-term memory has enabled researchers and educators to develop techniques for helping students learn and remember information.
The section below highlights key findings from the research on attention and memory.
Both attentional control — the ability to choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore — and attentional scope — the size and processing capacity of working memory — affect performance in cognitive tasks as well as
longer-term educational success.[ii] Research shows that attentional control is related to broader
capacities for self-regulation, and is strengthened and refined as a child develops.[iii] Certain
programs can help children develop their self-regulation skills and other executive functions,
making them more likely to succeed in school.[iv]
Simultaneous multitasking, or the overlapping of multiple tasks at the same time, overwhelms working memory and can distract learners.[v] Sequential multitasking, which involves toggling back and forth between tasks, is less distracting but can slow performance, as there is a lag anytime people switch between different tasks.[vi] When learners are multitasking or are faced with irrelevant or confusing information, their working memories often become overwhelmed, and they have less capacity to focus on what they need to learn.
Working memory can only hold a small amount of material for a limited time, but can hold more for longer if the information is well organized.[vii] Researchers have identified a number of techniques that can increase the amount of information held in working memory, increasing the likelihood that new information will be stored in long-term memory.[viii] Chunking, for instance, involves combining individual units of information into larger blocks, such as remembering a phone number as a combination of two and three digit numbers rather than ten individual digits.[ix] Other mnemonic techniques that facilitate learning and subsequent information retrieval include the chain method and the method of loci.
Spacing out the repetition or review of information over time helps encode information into long term memory more effectively.[xi] Connecting new information to what one already knows — a process known as elaborative rehearsal — also makes it easier to remember.[xii] Asking learners to recall information repeatedly over time, through tests or other retrieval activities, makes them more likely to retain the knowledge,[xiii] and can be more effective than just passive rereading.
The Emotion & Cognition subtopic covers information about how the brain recognizes, processes, and regulates emotions.
The Working Memory & Attention subtopic includes research on working memory, which is the system responsible for temporarily holding a small amount of information for use in thinking processes. Many studies in this subtopic also focus on the connection between attention and working memory.
The Recognition Memory subtopic includes studies on this type of memory, which focuses on how people remember something they previously encountered. Studies also explore factors that lead people to develop false memories.
The Language Production & Comprehension subtopic explores the technical aspects of how people speak and understand spoken words.
The Autobiographical Memory subtopic includes research on how people develop and use memories of past personal experiences. Studies in this subtopic also explore the relationship between autobiographical memory and individuals’ thinking about the future.
The Retrieval Practice subtopic includes research on how people retrieve information from memory, and how this process is used in learning. Studies also explore how retrieval practice is related to short and long-term retention of material, and how it can be used in the classroom.
The Cognitive Control subtopic explores the brain’s ability to select certain thoughts or responses over others at different times, and to switch between different tasks.
The Face Recognition & Processing subtopic explores how the brain functions to recognize and process other people’s faces, including how children develop this ability.
The Consciousness & Attention subtopic includes research on these two distinct but related psychological concepts, with a focus on how attention is directed to a location in visual space. Studies also explore how distractors can interrupt focused attention.
Retrieval-Induced Forgetting occurs when a learner uses the retrieval practice technique to remember a portion of material, but forgets the remaining unstudied material in the process. Studies in this subtopic explore reasons why this occurs, and its consequences for memory and learning.
The Sleep & Learning subtopic explores the connection between sleep and the brain’s processes related to learning and memory.
Prospective Memory is the process by which people remember to do something at a specific time in the future. This subtopic includes research on the different ways the brain creates prospective memories, and factors that lead to differences in how individuals create and retain them.
The Action & the Brain subtopic includes research on the cognitive and neural processes involved in understanding one’s own and others’ actions. Studies also explore how the brain processes action words.
The Decision Making subtopic includes cognitive science research on how the brain processes information to make decisions and select among choices.
[i] Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 8, 4789.
[ii] McClelland, M. M., Acock, A. C., Piccinin, A., Rhea, S. A., & Stallings, M. C. (2013). Relations between preschool attention span-persistence and age 25 educational outcomes. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(2), 314324. Cowan N, Fristoe NM, Elliott EM, Brunner RP, Saults JS (2006). “Scope of attention, control of attention, and intelligence in children and adults.” MEM COGNITION. Cowan N, et al (2005) “On the capacity of attention: Its estimation and its role in working memory and cognitive aptitudes” COGNITIVE PSYCHOL.
[iii] McClelland, M. M., & Wanless, S. B. (2012). Growing up with assets and risks: The importance of self- regulation for academic achievement. Research in Human Development, 9(4), 278297. Heim, S., & Keil, A. (2012). Developmental trajectories of regulating attentional selection over time. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 277.
[iv] Adele Diamond, Kathleen Lee (2011) “Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4 to 12 Years Old.” Science. Adele Diamond (2012). “Activities and Programs That Improve Children’s Executive Functions.” Current Directions in Psychological Science.
[v] Konig, C. J., Buhner, M., & Murling, G. (2005). Working memory, fluid intelligence, and attention are predictors of multitasking performance, but polychronicity and extraversion are not. Human Performance, 18(3), 243266.
[vi] Vandierendonck A, Liefooghe B, Verbruggen F (2010) Task Switching: Interplay of Reconfiguration and Interference Control PSYCHOL BULL.
[vii] Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review, 63, 8197.
[viii] Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2016). Educational psychology: Windows on Classrooms (10th ed.). New York: Pearson.
[ix] Gobet, F., Lane, P. C. R., Croker, S., Cheng, P. CH., Jones, G., Oliver, I., & Pine, J. M. (2001). Chunking mechanisms in human learning. TRENDS in Cognitive Neuroscience, 5(6), 236243. [x] Brown, Roediger, McDaniel. (2014) Make It Stick.
[xi] Carpenter, S. K., Cepeda, N. J., Rohrer, D., Kang, S. H., & Pashler, H. (2012). Using spacing to enhance diverse forms of learning: Review of recent research and implications for instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 369378.
[xii] Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2016). [see endnote 8]
[xiii] Agarwal, P.K. (2016). Retrieval Practice Guide. Retrieved from: http://www.retrievalpractice.org/