Three Stages of the Learning/Memory Process

Psychologists distinguish between three necessary stages in the learning and memory process: encoding, storage, and retrieval (Melton, 1963). Encoding is defined as the initial learning of information; storage refers to maintaining information over time; retrieval is the ability to access information when you need it. If you meet someone for the first time at a party, you need to encode her name (Lyn Goff) while you associate her name with her face. Then you need to maintain the information over time. If you see her a week later, you need to recognize her face and have it serve as a cue to retrieve her name. Any successful act of remembering requires that all three stages be intact. However, two types of errors can also occur. Forgetting is one type: you see the person you met at the party and you cannot recall her name. The other error is misremembering (false recall or false recognition): you see someone who looks like Lyn Goff and call the person by that name (false recognition of the face). Or, you might see the real Lyn Goff, recognize her face, but then call her by the name of another woman you met at the party (misrecall of her name).

Whenever forgetting or misremembering occurs, we can ask, at which stage in the learning/ memory process was there a failure?—though it is often difficult to answer this question with precision. One reason for this inaccuracy is that the three stages are not as discrete as our description implies. Rather, all three stages depend on one another. How we encode information determines how it will be stored and what cues will be effective when we try to retrieve it. And too, the act of retrieval itself also changes the way information is subsequently remembered, usually aiding later recall of the retrieved information. The central point for now is that the three stages—encoding, storage, and retrieval—affect one another, and are inextricably bound together.


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UPEI Introduction to Psychology 1 by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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