+ Building Background Knowledge: Working Memory

other topics: click a “category” or use search box

As reported in Robert J Marzano’s book “Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement,” academic background knowledge affects  “school learning.”  Furthermore, studies have shown its relation to occupation and status in life.

We acquire background knowledge through the interaction of two factors: the ability to process and store information and the number and frequency of our academically oriented experiences.

Storage of  information is about memory.

There are three functions of memory: sensory memory, permanent memory, and working memory.

For many years, it was commonly thought that there were two different types of memory: short-term and long-term.  But that long-held distinction has been replaced with a theory that there is only one type of memory with three different functions, writes Marzano.

While sensory memory feeds into working memory, so does permanent memory.  But all memories must be effectively processed in working memory before they can be lodged in permanent memory.  What are these three kinds of memory?

  • Sensory Memory — a non-linguistic, very temporary repository for information from our senses.  It is capable of storing more or less complete records of what has been encountered, but only for brief periods of time.  If not encoded before it decays, it is lost; much of what is recorded results in no permanent record.
  •  Permanent Memory — contains information which has been stored in such a way that it is available to us; it is the repository of our background knowledge, both academic and nonacademic.  Interestingly, this information is frequently activated without our awareness: memory “packets” in permanent memory are activated by any related item in working memory.
  • Working Memory — a repository of data from sensory memory (where it is held only briefly) or data from permanent memory (where it resides lastingly), or from both.  The amount of time data can reside in working memory has no theoretical limit: it lasts as long as we focus conscious attention on it.  To this extent, it might be considered the “seat of consciousness.”  It is the quality and type of processing that occurs in working memory that determines whether that information makes it to permanent memory.

Exactly what is it that dictates whether information makes it into permanent memory? 

At least three interacting dynamics of working-memory processing are needed. 

1.      Strength  — The strength of the “memory trace.”   And this strength increases with repeated practice.  It’s about frequency.  In educational terms: the more times a student processes information, the more likely a student will be to remember it. 

Nutall (1995) found (minimally) four exposures — with no more than two days between — were required for most students to adequately integrate information into permanent memory (background knowledge).  LD students, of course, can need more exposures. 

2.     Depth — Deep processing of information is about adding detail to our understanding of the information.  For example, “Camping trip last week.” What were some of its defining characteristics? The more you can mention, the deeper your understanding.

3.     Elaboration — Elaboration deals with the variety of associations we make with the information.  It’s related to “depth,” but where deep processing means going into more and more detail (my camping trip meant sleeping outside, smelling the pine needles, cooking over a fire), “elaboration” means making new and varied connections to it (my camping trip is sort of like sleepovers and trips to grandma’s house).


Information must make it into permanent memory to become part of our background knowledge.

The quality of the processing in working memory is what matters.  It either enhances or inhibits the likelihood that information will reach permanent memory.

Effective processing of information in working memory depends on particular critical activities:  1) information must be processed multiple times; 2) detail must be added; 3) associations must be made with other information.

So any program that wants to enhance academic background knowledge ought to present the target information in a way that permits these things to happen.

source: Robert J Marzano’s “Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools,” pub. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  ISBN 0-87120-972-1 (paper).

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


Comments are closed.