Department of Psychology
University of California, Berkeley


Knowledge may or may not translate into behavior, but by virtue of learning it becomes available for use, stored in memory.  Now, psychologists distinguish among a number of different kinds of memory, including “short term” or “working” memory and “long-term” memory.  When we talk about student learning, we’re mostly talking about “long-term” memory — though working memory is not by any means irrelevant.  Distractions, like music or checking your cell phone for texts, can consume some of the capacity of working memory, with the result that relatively little can be encoded in or retrieved from long-term memory.

Cognitive psychologists commonly distinguish among various types of knowledge stored in long-term memory.  There is, first, a distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge.  Declarative knowledge is factual knowledge, about what is true or false, which can be represented in sentence-like structures known as propositions.  Procedural knowledge is knowledge of skills and rules, how to do things, which can be represented in “if-then” conditional statements known as productions.

  • There are two kinds of procedural knowledge: motor procedures, like how to shift gears in a standard-shift car, and mental procedures, like how to calculate square roots.
  • And there are two kinds of declarative knowledge: episodic knowledge is essentially autobiographical memory, for particular events that have a unique location in space and time; semantic knowledge is more abstract, like a mental dictionary or encyclopedia.  The names of the planets are recorded in my semantic memory; the fact that I learned them for a science project in Mrs. Sly’s third-grade class is recorded in my episodic memory.

Much of what we know about memory we know about episodic memory, and then generalize to the other types.  But there’s one special fact about procedural knowledge, which is enshrined in what Anders Ericsson, of Florida State University, has called the 10,000-Hour Rule (made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book, Outliers) — it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at a skill.  That’s 40 hours per week, 50 weeks a year, for 5 years; or 3 hours a week, 7 days a week, for 10 years; and it’s the difference between Yo-Yo Ma and the rest of us.  By that standard, most students probably need to study harder.

Psychologists have been studying memory for about 125 years, ever since Ebbinghaus invented the nonsense syllable, and we know quite a lot about how it works — enough so that cognitive neuroscientists can begin to figure out how the brain does it. But I’m not going to talk about the brain today. There is enough to say about the learning process at the psychological level of analysis.

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