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By Associate Professor Richard B. Gunderman MD, PhD, MPH (auth.)

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Memory, then, is not a great monolith, but a series of levels or stages of information processing. The most primary of these is sensory memory. In sensory memory, information is available to us for a very short period of time after the stimuli have passed, perhaps but a split second. If we are to retain the information for a longer period of time, it must enter working memory. Short-term working memory is what we call consciousness. Once an event has passed, only certain features are accessible to short-term working memory.

As a general rule, information becomes easier to retrieve from long-term memory the more times it has been retrieved in the past. Why would information be retrieved? In some cases, such as a phone number, it is simply retrieved to be recited and then filed away again. In other cases, however, it is retrieved to be used in solving a new problem. Generally speaking, information will be available to a greater degree in problem solving when it has been retrieved to solve problems in the past. Hence tests that ask learners not only to recall information but to use it to solve problems of the sort they will encounter in real clinical practice generally offer a greater learning opportunity.

They do, however, provide a broad overview of the spectrum of theoretical approaches to learning. The very fact that there are four theories indicates that no single one has achieved universal dominance. Unlike Newton’s theory of gravitation, which largely put to rest attempts to develop alternative explanations for the attraction between objects, educational theorists have not achieved a single consensus. Each of the theories has its own strengths and weaknesses, and no one answers all questions.

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