Reference memory and working memory

Table of Content


The human memory is the information processing part of a human being. Its working mechanism has never been understood but it’s learned through similarities.

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The human memory is composed of the sensory, short-term and Long–term memories. The sensory memory is concerned with relaying messages from the skin and other sensory organs of the body.

The human senses constantly produces more information than the brain can store, this results to overwriting and whatever seems useful for the future is stored for recalling.

The environment we live in has so much information than one can process, it thus calls for attention as the first process towards recording any information. The information is then encoded for remembrance and storage in the memory (Fischer & Pipp, 1984).

The information is then stored depending on the umber of times it has been repeated in either the working memory (short-term) and reference memory (long-term). Some of the information in the short-term memory is transferred to the long-term.

Any wanted information is available for retrieval through visualizing and interpreting its meaning.

The Working Memory.

The working memory is the temporal storage facility for any information that is under processing for proper coordination and sequence of events and occurrences within our day to days activities. It assists in multitasking successfully without concentrating on only one event such as remembering a certain phone number while driving without noting it down somewhere (Bolles, 1988).

For the working memory to effectively achieve its objectives it must allocate sufficient cognitive resources for the processes to be effectively and successively accomplished.

Information processing theory

Information processing theory states that the short-memory has a very small capacity and only holds 5-9 chunks of information. A chuck can be regarded as a digit or a word. It is from this theory where all the other theories derive their concepts. The theory describes best the human cognitive process. Information is stored in a hierarchical order for execution (Brainerd & Kingma, 1985).

Attribution Theory

Attribution Theory tries to relate individuals thinking and behaviors depending on the events, it tries to determine why individuals do what they do, and the circumstances that might have

lead to such an act. The theory involves observing the said behavior as it occurs, judging

whether it was intentional and finally determining whether the individual has forces behind such act.

The theory is much related to motivation and explains the difference between high and low achievers in an educational setting. According to the theory high achievers succeed due to their hard work and determination whereas failure results due to lack of confidence and commitment (Brainerd, & Kingma, 1985).

Cognitive Dissonance theory

Dissonance is any inconsistency between some known behaviors traits. The Cognitive Dissonance theory thus tries to find consistency between beliefs and opinions, in most cases altitude changes for the sake of the behavior.

Cognitive Dissonance usually occurs when there are conflicting beliefs and actions, for example when two situations have equal attractiveness. The mind will have to put into consideration more other factors so has to decide what to finally consider better off than the

other. The theory is more applicable in making decisions and problem solving.

Constructivist Theory

Constructivist theory suggests that learning is through linking new ideas to the current or past ideas and knowledge. A learner comes up with ideas; make decisions and link the ideas to cognitive structures and provide meaning to the new ideas, beyond the information provided.

The Constructivist theory entices the mind to discover principles on its own by filling in the gaps.

Cognitive Load Theory

The cognitive load theory suggests that the short term memory has a limited number of elements it can comfortably contain. The combinations of these elements form the knowledge capacity of an individual (Brainerd, & Kingma, 1985).

The theory suggest that there is no significant difference between individuals but their main difference is the prolonged exposure to any situation that makes one more efficient through developing strong cognitive characteristics that are handled by the working memory. This reduces on over reliance on the working memory.

The Reference Memory

The memory acts as a store for information over long periods of time and retrieved when required. The information stored here is usually from the working memory, and once in the reference memory has the least chances of decay. The long term memory helps us reconstruct certain events that took place in our lives in the past and place them in a certain manner. It also helps in structuring of new concepts and skills as applied in daily activities (Bolles, 1988).

The functions of the long-term memory are to store information, delete unwanted information

and retrieval information for use in the current state. This is done by constantly repeating pieces of information until it sticks into the reference memory (Fischer & Pipp, 1984). .Information is mainly lost from the long-term memory through decay and interferences from factors such as the emotions of an individual .It is thus very difficult to have a clear difference between losing memory and forgetting because information that had been perceived to have been forgotten can be recalled through recognition, or through prompting.

When recalling, information is retrieved from the memory as it was when stored without much alteration to its nature and form, but in recognition the information compares the present information with some past information and provides the clues of their similarity (Bolles, 1988).

The Reference memory stores information in two ways; Preconscious we which information is stored permanently  and can be reached through recalling which may last for two seconds each for two years or it can be in the Unconscious which is the knowledge that we have within our memory but we are not sure whether we  have it.

Level of processing theory

The level of processing theory suggests that information within the reference memory depends on the depth of the learning that took place as the knowledge was being impacted, thus for information  to be stored in the reference memory for long then the subject must be examined deeply and more learning done on a specific concept (Fischer & Pipp, 1984).

Parallel Distributed theory

The theory suggests that the mind stores information in several paths rather than as a single process. The knowledge is distributed but not placed in a single location, and that new information is acquired by building sub-branches upon the main branch which is the main subject.

Connectionist Approach

The connectionist theory suggests that information in the mind exist as small meaningless units that only acquire meaning upon linking up with other small  units to build up to a bigger meaningful function which when activated knowledge is formed and recalled.

 Under this approach knowledge is in group of units in the mind. These units are individually meaningless. For the unit to be functional it requires activation by stimulations coming from other units and this makes it sends its information to the neighbor units (Fischer & Pipp, 1984). The combination of each of the individual units is now what is recalled and becomes the information retrieved.


 The working memory is the most important memory for the day to day activities, since it forms the basis of the reference memory upon repeating any information several times. Incase the working memory cannot coordinate information well, then the reference memory will be void and the individual cannot relate the past with present and even the future.

The human memory remains a subject that is less known and most of the research revolves around speculation without very true finding on the subject. Most of the theories require revision if at all someone comes up with a better explanation (Bolles, 1988).

For the storage of information in the memory to be well accomplished the mind should be in a stress free state and out of any conditions addictive states that may result from use of drugs.

A well working memory results to a well working reference memory which means that the individual has the power to reason and act logically.


Fischer, K. W. & Pipp, S. (1984). Processes of Cognitive Development: Optimal Level and Skill Acquisition. Mechanisms of Cognitive Development. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co.

Brainerd, C.J. & Kingma, J. (1985). On the Independence of Short-Term Memory and Working Memory in Cognitive Development. Cognitive Psychology, 17.

Bolles, B. E. (1988). Remembering and Forgetting: Inquiries into the Nature of Memory. New York: Walker and Co., Inc.,


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