Sensory Memory in Cognitive Information Processing


Sensory memory relates to the way in which we process the information our senses pick up.  It looks for patterns (allowing us to recognize symbols and shapes), filters out extraneous data while giving selective attention to a task, and allows us to recall some of the information recently received (in the last .5-4 seconds depending on the sense used) if needed.

As instructors, it is important to note that a learner is constantly receiving data from their senses that they must be filtering through and assigning value to.  Our information that we are attempting to get across to them will only be attended to if it is deemed of value to their sensory filter.  For example, I was in a class listening to the instructor when a loud ½ minute long peal of thunder captivated the attention of everyone in the room.  The instructor acknowledged the thunder and then moved on.  (She actually made it a teachable moment, because she was talking about how the brain works.  It was a great example!)  What would have happened if she would have continued to try to teach through the thunder?  Most likely the sensory registers in all of the student’s brains would have attended to the thunder and not to the topic at hand.  It would not have been possible for the students to recall her words over the length of the entire thunderpeal.  Instead, she may as well have been talking like the teacher in the Peanuts cartoons.

Additionally, instructors can use techniques to attempt to overcome the negative effects of our instruction from being that which falls into the sensory wastebasket along with the other repetitive or mundane stimulation.  We can provide patterns (think of how young children enjoy rhymes and the repetition of favorite books as they learn to read).  We can use humor, movement, interesting and varied materials, and music to attract and retain attention.  We can make the information meaningful to the learner in order to increase the likelihood of it crossing into the next phase of memory.  Of course, we do also want to rejoice that sensory memory does exist, lest our learners (or ourselves) become too overloaded with stimulation.


Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed., pp. 71-86). Boston, MA. Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

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