Human Information Processing System: Sensory Memory to Working Memory

In a recent blog post titled “The Human Information Processing System: How People Learn (or Don’t),” we went over five key steps in which people learn and later apply information. In this post, we’ll look at the transition from Step 1, “We experience information through our senses and sensory memory,” to Step 2, “Some of that information is processed by our working memory.”

As we learned earlier, in Step 1 sensory information (sights, sounds, etc.) is perceived by our sense organs (eyes, ears, etc.) and is briefly processed by our sensory memory. The information stays in our sensory information for a very short time—in many cases, only a fraction of a second, though in some cases, it may last for a few seconds.

Some of that information goes on to be processed by our working memory; this is when we become aware of the information. The rest of that information is essentially lost. This is why people sometimes say that the working memory is a “bottleneck” within the learning process. And it’s why if you’re trying to help employees learn, you want to try to draw their attention to the right stuff to get past that bottleneck.

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So, as a learning professional, if you want people to learn from your training materials and later apply that learning on their job, this is your first hurdle: getting sensory information through the sensory memory and into the working memory.

But it’s more than just that. You want specific sensory information to get into the working memory: the content you’re covering in training. And, you want outside distractions and distractions created by chaotic training materials to NOT enter the working memory.

The information that passes from our sensory memory to our working memory doesn’t get there by chance. Instead, our brain plays an active (if subconscious) role in selecting the information that it will pay closer attention to. In many cases, the information that gets to our working memory gets there because it’s the kind of stimuli that our brains are “hardwired” to pay attention to.

As a learning professional, understanding the kind of things that our brains are “hardwired” to pay attention to can be very helpful to you. It gives you a chance to remove distractions from the training environment and from your own training materials (or presentations). And it gives you a chance to intentionally create training materials that draw the attention of your learners.

There’s a lot to be said about how the brain selects some stimuli for the working memory and ignores the other stimuli. Research is ongoing and we learn things every day. A lot of the information can be pretty complex. But here are some good basic guidelines to follow:

  • Don’t expect workers to multitask during training. Remove them from their normal job responsibilities so they can focus on the training.
  • Perform training in an environment that’s free from external distractions. If possible, use a training room that’s removed from the work area.
  • Our brains are very attracted to visual stimuli, so try to include lots of visual input in your training materials.
  • While creating visual components of your training materials, keep the basics of good visual design in mind (or hire someone who knows them). This will allow you to use shape, color, and other aspects of visual design to draw the learner’s attention. The book Visual Language for Design: Principles for Creating Graphics that People Understand by Connie Malamed does a great job of explaining basics of visual design and putting them into the best context for learning professionals and is highly recommended. She uses the phrase “preattentive visual processes” to explain things you should think about during the visual design phase so that your training materials will enter the learner’s working memory. For more information, we’ve written a blog post with some examples of effective visuals and why they help people learn.
  • Keep the visual components of your training materials simple. This is a key point that Malamed makes in her book.
  • Try using online video that includes people (either animated or “real life” people). For a brief explanation why, go to this course from the behavioral psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk (who goes by the name of “The Brain Lady”) and watch the free sample of Video 42, “Why Online Video is Compelling.”
  • Use intructor-led, classroom training with a lively, engaging instructor. Many of the tips that Dr. Weinschenk made in the link above about online video also apply here–the instructor should be enthusiastic; the instructor should move around a little, but not too much; the instructor should use his or her hands; etc. Also, remember to keep these essential steps of training and these adult learning principles in mind.

There are many other ways to try to draw people’s attention—too many to list here. But the ones above will get you started, and you can add more tricks to your training repertoire over time.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. Jeff has worked in education/training for more than twenty years and in safety training for more than ten. You can follow Jeff at LinkedIn as well.

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