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What Is the Connection between Working Memory and Learning?

By E. Reeder
Updated May 17, 2024
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Working memory also is known as short-term memory. Learning refers to gaining a deeper understanding of concepts or ideas, an improved ability to complete certain tasks, or a change in behavior. Working memory and learning are connected because the information we hold in our working memory directly affects what and how we learn. We only learn what has, at one point, been in our working memory, so working memory and learning are inextricably linked.

Short-term memory, or working memory, refers to everything a person hold in his or her mind at a certain time. It is related to the stimuli surrounding them as well as anything they are working on, reading about, thinking about or concentrating on. Working memory includes everything a person is conscious of and working on at a particular moment. From working memory, information is either lost or transferred to long-term memory. A great deal of the information that goes through a person's minds is lost, whether because it is irrelevant external stimuli, is not used much or is not thoroughly processed.

Learning refers to information that a person processes and retains. It also refers to gaining or improving abilities to complete tasks or to understand a concept more deeply than before. For example, a person who has improved his or her ability to play baseball or who now understand quantum physics or philosophy more deeply than before can be described as having learned. Learning also can refer to a change in behavior. A person who used to smoke cigarettes, for example, might have noticed that every time he smoked, he was likely to cough a great deal, which led him to change his behavior by not smoking anymore.

The connection between working memory and learning is that information must pass through a person's working memory to be learned. All information that passes through a person’s working memory is not learned. If a student memorizes the answers for a math test or vocabulary quiz, only to pass it and then promptly forget the information, he did not learn. If, on the other hand, a person studies abnormal psychology and personality disorders and then uses that information to interact more effectively with someone with such a personality disorder, then he or she has processed the information in his or her working memory and learned it. Working memory and learning, therefore, are dependent on one another, because what is learned must first have been actively engaged in a person’s working memory.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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