How People Learn: What Frisbees Have to Do With Memory

posted in: How People Learn | 0

Short-term memory is just that: short! If you have ever forgotten what you were looking for between one room and the next, you can understand that information that resides only in short-term memory is worth nothing at all. Short-term memory is only intended, really, to work on a current thought. Perhaps wondering where you left your car keys, or punching in a phone number to make a call. Ephemeral things that aren’t worth storing long-term.

The magic of learning only happens when information is transferred into long-term memory.

I spent a lot of money on this graphic, so let’s take another look at it:

Box containing text "short-term memory" has an arrow pointing to box with text "long-term memory." There is also an arrow pointing to the arrow between boxes, with a note "where learning happens"

This overly simplified model makes it look easy! Just pass that new knowledge onto long-term memory. Done.

But, of course, it’s not so easy at all – especially if you are the instructional designer or educator trying to make that learning happen in someone else!

As I mentioned last-time, learners have to be active and engaged to learn. They not only have to be paying attention (and as a prerequisite: motivated to pay attention!), they have to integrate the new knowledge into their existing knowledge.

So, let’s spend a moment to consider how the mind organizes information!

Schema Theory

One way to describe the mind stores information is Schema Theory. This theory stems from the information processing view of learning, and posits that every individual has unique schema, or mental models, by which they understand and process the world (Mayer, 2008).

For instance: think about when you visit a new restaurant. Do you seat yourself? Do you order at the counter? You likely have existing schemata that help you make predictions about how this new restaurant works. You have these schemata based on previous restaurant visits, and you have modified them over time according to your restaurant experiences.

Every person’s mind houses thousands of schema, and even sub-schema. What’s more is that everything that a mind knows is connected.

I really liked my neuroscience professor Dr. Jill Stamm’s explanation of schema and how the mind is organized: Imagine a room. In this room, there are thousands of frisbees suspended in a sort of web that connects to all four walls, the floor, and the ceiling. The room is a mind, and every frisbee represents a bit of knowledge. Every frisbee, if plucked, pulls connected frisbees closer as well. The more connections a frisbee has, the easier that bit of knowledge is to recall. Frisbees with very few connections are difficult to pluck – to recall.

Imagine that this giant web is made up of smaller, color-coded webs that are interconnected, and you start to get a visual image of what schema look like as a model and how they are all interconnected.

Spider web on a bush

Just like a spider web!

The implication here is, beyond a well-connected bit of knowledge being easier to recall, is that anything new that a person learns has to fit into their existing schemata in some way. Otherwise it’ll be very difficult to recall, if the new information transfers to long-term storage at all.

This is where short-term memory comes back into play: this working memory is a place to store a bit of new information while the mind figures out how it fits into things that are already known.

If a person is very familiar with dogs, it will be easy for them to learn a new dog breed. This new information fits neatly into their existing dog schema.

If someone is trying to learn quantum physics, but they have very little existing knowledge in science or math, they have almost no schemata to which to attach this information, no lens by which to understand it. So this will be an exceedingly difficult subject to learn and difficult to retain.

But a fun fact: a student that chews grape-flavored gum every time they study for their history final will do better on that final if they chew the same gum while taking the test! That’s because they’ve strengthened the number of connections to their history knowledge by tying it to grape-flavored gum as well.

The takeaway for educators is to help learners integrate new information into their existing information – what they already know. This is one of many reasons that doing a learner analysis may be very helpful in the instructional design process. Knowing what your learners already know will help you help them make more connections. Graphic organizers are also a teaching strategy that can help learners incorporate new information into their existing schemata. Asking learners to complete their own graphic organizers supports their learning and helps them with generative processing.

Next time, we’ll talk about cognitive load theory, and its implications for educators!


Mayer, R.E. (2008). 18. Information Processing. In T.L. Good (Ed.), 21st century education: A Reference handbook (vol. 1). Sage Publications, Inc.