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How learning happens

Information enters the brain through the senses—primarily, in most educational settings, through the eyes and ears. Where attention is directed, the information that's perceived moves into the working memory of the brain. To be learned, the information must be moved from working memory into long-term memory. This process is probably familiar to you. For example, when you hear someone's name for the first time, you probably remember the name as long as you're talking to the person. But unless you make a conscious effort to really learn the name—for example, by associating the person and the name with a particular image—you're likely to forget it later on.

Working memory is the main work area for thought, the conscious center of the brain. But its storage capacity is limited. Think of working memory as a small chalkboard. You start writing information on it, and it quickly fills up. Soon, you have to erase the board in order to put more information on it. In order to save the information you're erasing, you need to write it somewhere else—say, on a piece of paper, which is long-term memory. But you're working against time, so not everything on the chalkboard will be captured on the paper—some of it will be erased before you have time to copy it down.

Because of its limited capacity, working memory is the bottleneck in human information processing. This is the origin of several instructional challenges, which are discussed in more detail later in this chapter. Most importantly, the limited capacity of working memory defines one key goal of effective teaching and training: to move knowledge and skills through working memory into permanent storage in long-term memory.

While in working memory, information must be used or practiced in some way or it will be lost. In cognitive psychology, the technical term used for this process is rehearsal. Rehearsal is what you do when you form a visual image or reorganize information in your mind so that you'll remember it later. When rehearsal is effective, it succeeds in capturing, or encoding, information in long-term memory. Unlike working memory, long-term memory has a large capacity and long duration. Once information is stored there, it will probably always be there. It becomes knowledge.

But storage in long-term memory isn't enough. When knowledge is needed, it must be retrieved from long-term memory and brought back into working memory for processing. So enabling people to retrieve information from long-term memory when it's needed is the final goal of teaching and training. This is called positive transfer.

The following illustration summarizes the flow of information from the senses through working memory into long-term memory and back into working memory through the processes of attention, encoding, rehearsal, and retrieval.

The flow of information

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