AQA GCSE Psychology – Memory

This Chapter Covers:

Chapter 1: Memory

  • Processes of memory
    • Different types of memory
      • Episodic memory
      • Semantic memory
      • Procedural memory
    • How memories are encoded and stored
  • Structures of memory
    • The multi-store memory model
      • Sensory memory store
      • Short-term memory store
      • Long-term memory store
    • The features of each store
      • Encoding
      • Capacity
      • Duration
  • Primacy and recency effects
    • The effects of serial position
    • Murdock’s serial position curve study
  • Memory as an active process
    • The Theory of Reconstructive Memory, including the concept of ‘effort after meaning’
    • Bartlett’s War of the Ghosts study
    • Factors affecting the accuracy of memory, including interference, context and false memories


Chapter 2: Perception

Chapter 3: Development

  • Early brain development
    • A basic knowledge of brain development, from simple neural structures in the womb, of the brain stem, thalamus, cerebellum and cortex, reflecting the development of autonomic functions, sensory processing, movement and cognition
    • The roles of nature and nurture
  • Piaget’s stage theory and the development of intelligence
    • Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development including concepts of assimilation and accommodation
  • The role of Piaget’s theory in education
    • The four stages of development: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operational. Application of these stages in education. Reduction of egocentricity, development of conservation
  • McGarrigle and Donaldson’s ‘naughty teddy study’; Hughes’ ‘policeman doll study’

Chapter 4: Research Methods

  • Formulation of testable hypotheses
  • Types of variable
  • Sampling methods
  • Designing research
  • Correlation
  • Research procedures
  • Planning and conducting research
  • Ethical considerations
  • Quantitative and qualitative data
  • Primary and secondary data
  • Computation
  • Descriptive statistics
  • Interpretation and display of quantitative data
  • Normal distributions

Chapter 5: Social Influence

  • Conformity
  • Obedience
  • Prosocial behaviour
  • Crowd and collective behaviour

Chapter 6: Language, Thought and Communication

  • The possible relationship between language and thought
  • The effect of language and thought on our view of the world
  • Differences between human and animal communication
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Explanations of non-verbal behaviour

Chapter 7: Brain and Neuropsychology

  • Structure and function of the nervous system
  • Neuron structure and function
  • Structure and function of the brain
  • An introduction to neuropsychology

Chapter 8: Psychological Problems

  • An introduction to mental health
  • How the incidence of significant mental health problems changes over time
  • Effects of significant mental health problems on individuals and society
  • Characteristics of clinical depression
  • Theories of depression
  • Interventions or therapies for depression
  • Characteristics of addiction
  • Theories of addiction
  • Interventions or therapies for addiction

What is memory?

Memory is defined as the encoding, storage and the retrieval of stored information once needed. Three forms of encoding are used which are acoustic, visual and semantic. The three types of retrieval systems used by memory are recall, recognition and re-learning. Focus is on the amount of information stored (capacity), the length of time it is stored (duration) and the way information is stored (acoustic, visual or semantic).

Processes of memory

Episodic memory

Episodic memory refers to memories of personal events or experiences you may have had in your life that are personal to you i.e. places you have visited or events that have happened. Examples of episodic memory are remembering your first day at school or a holiday you had last year.

Procedural memory

Procedural memory is memory for complicated skills such as how to ride a bike, swim or tie your shoelaces and involved action-based memories. Procedural memory is believed to be stored using a motor code rather than a verbal code and this is why children need to be shown how to do tasks such as riding a bike or swimming rather than it being explained.

Acoustic encoding

Acoustic encoding is holding information in your memory in the form of sound. An example of this is when we are given a mobile number to remember; we repeat it to ourselves to maintain the memory acoustically until we get a pen to write it down.

Semantic encoding

Semantic encoding refers to encoding something through its meaning. An example of this; Name David Beckhams spouse and all his children. To think about this you may involve some visual processing as you picture them together but you will need to think about what the word spouse means to decipher its his partner, then you may ask yourself how many children he has and this may involve some visualisation. As you visualise them you may begin to ask yourself what their names are; as you dig deeper like this trying to decipher the meanings behind the pictures you see in your mind, this is semantic encoding.

Semantic memory

Semantic memory is memory for facts and general knowledge. An example of semantic memory is the knowledge about the meaning of words or knowing the capital of England is London.


Encoding is the processing of information in some form into memory. Psychologists focus on acoustic encoding (sound), visual encoding (picture) and semantic encoding (meaning).

Visual encoding

Visual encoding is when we process information visually in the form of a picture in our mind. An example of how information is encoded visually is; think about how big your garden is? – If you are picturing your garden in your mind right now trying to answer this, this is an example of visual encoding.


Once information is stored there also needs to be a process to retrieve this information and this is done in 3 different ways we will focus on:

  • Recall: This type of retrieval is associated with remembering information as we search out memory. For example we may be asked a question such as “What is the capital of Thailand?” – To answer this we may need to recall the answer which is located within our memory.
  • Recognition: This involves us being presented with items and being asked if we remember any of them from a previous exposure.
  • Re-learning: Re-learning involves us being exposed to something we may have learn’t previously but have since forgotten (or so we think) and then once exposed to it again later, we are tasked with re-learning this information but it usually doesn’t take as long as it did to initially learn it and we pick it up much faster. An example of this may be a song we knew when we were younger but have since forgotten; When exposed to it as an adult we may re-learn it faster.

Structures of memory

The multi-store memory model

The multi-store model of memory was created by Atkinson and Shiffrin and consists of three stores which are the sensory information store (SIS), the short-term memory store (STM) and the long-term memory store (LTM).

The short-term memory store (STM)

Information we choose to hold on to from the sensory store passes to the short-term memory store. Atkinson and Shiffrin proposed that we store this information in the short-term store through rehearsal and repeating it to ourselves although this may not necessarily be out loud or consciously. Information that is not rehearsed is forgotten through decay or displaced by new incoming information due to the short-term memory store having a limited duration of up to 18 seconds and a capacity of 7 +/- 2 items. Encoding is mainly acoustic and based on sound. Information that is rehearsed through elaborate or maintenance rehearsal passes on to the long-term memory store (LTM).

Primacy and Recency effects in recall


Primacy refers to the fact that items at the beginning of a list are in a primary position and us being more likely to remember items in this position is referred to as the primacy effect.


Recency refers to items on a list being at the end of a list and thus presented more recently as they are the last items we read. The fact that we are likely to also remember items in this position is referred to as the recency effect.

The effects of serial position

Murdock’s serial position curve study (1962) looked to see if the position of a word in a list had any effect on the likelihood of it being remembered better. To test this out Murdock asked people to remember a list of words which varied from 10 words to 40 words. The results of this study found that people remembered more from the lists when they were at the beginning of the list or at the end when compared to the words in the middle. The conclusion was participants were able to recall more words from the beginning of the list as they had been moved into the long-term memory store while words from the end of the list were recalled better as they were still in the short-term memory store (this study would also support the multi-store model of memory proposed by Atkinson and Shiffrin based on this assumption). The effects of serial position mean’s that the chances of recalling items depend on its position on a list with words at the start of a list or at the end having the highest chances of being recalled. murdock's serial position curve gcse psychology

The sensory information store (SIS)

Our senses are bombarded with sights and sounds however not all of them we pay attention to and most are discarded almost as soon as they are registered. The first part of the multi-store model of memory is the sensory store which stores this sensory information. This store is called the sensory information store (SIS) and it is not under cognitive control. Information deemed as important and given focused attention is selected and passed on to the next store which is the short-term memory store (STM). The sensory information store has a large capacity however the duration of storage is milliseconds unless this information is given focused attention. Research suggests encoding occurs in the way the information is received – so for example information received visually will be encoded visually.

The long-term memory store (LTM)

Information that is processed deeply through elaborate or maintenance rehearsal passes from the short-term memory store and into the long-term memory store. There is no specific duration for how long the information can be stored here and it could be for an entire lifetime or less. The capacity of the long-term memory store is also believed to be unlimited with encoding being mainly semantic and based on meaning.

Evaluating the multi-store memory model


  • A major strength of this model is that the predictions around memory can be easily tested to verify whether it applies to human behaviour. The evidence supports the idea of STM and LTM being separate types of memory and it has been verified through the use of PET scans and FMRI scans when participants have been doing separate tasks related to short-term memory and long-term. The prefrontal cortex is seen to relate to STM while the hippocampus associated with longterm memory supporting the models idea of different memory stores.


  • The theory is unable to explain how we are able to remember information that we do not rehearse and repetition does not necessarily make it easier to remember the information. For example we can recall our activities last weekend without rehearsal yet in other situations such as an exam; we may still struggle to recall information we have rehearsed. Other research suggests us understanding the meaning of information or how to put it into our own words is more important than simply repetition which undermines this explanation.

Murdock’s serial position curve study 1962

Aim: The aim of the study was to prove the existence of the short-term and long-term memory stores as the multi-store model of memory proposed. Study design: The study was a laboratory study which allowed researchers to control for extraneous variables. All procedures were standardised to ensure the experiment could be easily replicated. Participants were male and female students who had a requirement as part of their course to take part in psychological research. Method: 16 participants were presented with a list of 20 words at a rate of 1 word per second until all 20 words had been presented. They were then tasked with recalling as many of the words as they could remember within 90 seconds. The test was repeated with the same participants over 80 times over a few days using different word lists each time. Results: The results of Murdock’s study found that the words at the end of the list and the beginning of the list were recalled the best. Words being recalled at the end of the list became known as the recency effect. Words recalled at the beginning of the list came to be known as the primacy effect. Words in the middle were the least remembered. Conclusion: Murdock concluded that this provided strong evidence for the multi-store model of memory and short-term and long-term memory stores being separate from one another. Words recalled at the end of the list were seen to still be in the short-term memory store hence they were readily available for recall thus providing support for the short-term stores existence. Words recalled at the beginning of the list had time to be rehearsed and had thus been transferred over to the long-term memory store ready for recall which provides support for this stores existence. The words in the middle were not recalled as well as they had been stored in neither the short-term or long-term store.

Evaluating Murdock’s serial position curve study

The study was repeated by Murdock with the number of words given as well as the amount of presentation time the participants were given varied yet the results still produced primacy and recency effects supporting the validity of the multi-store model of memory. A variation of the study also saw the participants given a distraction task where participants were not asked to recall the words straight after hearing them but instead count backwards in threes. When participants were allowed to recall the words they found that the words from the beginning of the list were recalled as they had been embedded in the long-term memory but participants struggled with the words from the end of the list. This is believed to be because the distractor task took up the capacity of the short-term memory store which Murdock believed proved the existence of the short-term and long-term memory stores as the multi-store model of memory suggested.


The participants in this study were given lists of words to remember which is not the same use of memory in everyday life. In the real world people use their memory to remember tasks they need to do, exams, work and general day to day life. Therefore it could be argued the study lacks ecological validity due to its artificial setup. The study involved students who were all of a similar age and studying a psychology course. Due to the specific demographic involved in the study it raises the question as to whether the results can be generalised across different age groups or people of different backgrounds. For example the students may try and work out the aim of the study and alter the results accordingly or display demand characteristics. Additionally the students were required to repeat the study over 80 times and this could have affected their genuine effort levels meaning their recollection or efforts could have been affected by low motivation.

Memory as an active process

The theory of reconstructive memory

Bartlett proposed the reconstructive explanation of memory and suggested memory was not simply a recording device but instead memories were “reconstructed” and interpreted to fit in with the hopes, fears, emotions and previous experiences of individuals. He believed people looked at memories and past events and strived to make them more logical and meaningful. This was done by the people making inferences and deductions and what should have happened. Therefore memories were not just registered exactly but constructed and reconstructed to fit in with their individuals own expectations and understanding.

Bartlett’s War Of The Ghosts (1932)

Bartlett (1932) tested the reconstructive explanation for memory through his study “The war of the ghosts”. He wanted to see if memory could be altered by the individual’s previous experiences influencing their recall of events. To do this Bartlett played a game of “Chinese whispers” and asked students to pass on a story they are told to the next student. The story they were told was a Native American story which was culturally very different to what western students would be familiar to. It involved Native Americans travelling in canoes and fighting another group which turned out to be ghosts. Results found that the war of the ghosts story had dramatically changed by the time it reached the final student. Students were found to have altered the story so it fit into their own experiences and culture. For example instead of canoes, students recalled the mode of transport being cars and weapons as guns instead of bow and arrows. Bartlett concluded that memory was not accurate recordings of events but constructed and reconstructed to fit in with the individual’s own experiences. He believed individuals needed to impose meaning on something they did not understand and based this on their own understanding, experiences, hopes and fears.

War of the ghosts study – Key findings:

• Details such as ghosts were omitted. • The story was recalled more logically and shaped to fit together better than the original. • Details were changed to more familiar concepts to the person; for example canoes were changed to cars, bows and arrows changed to guns. • The ordering of the story was also changed.

Evaluating Reconstructive Memory And Bartlett’s War Of The Ghosts Story


  • Results appear to support the reconstructive explanations of memory which suggest’s memory is altered to fit in with individuals rather than a recording of events.
  • The model also explains everyday aspects of our memory and why we may have “failures” and why we do not accurately recall everything as they occur. For example this study helps us understand why people may remember events incorrectly as it may be down to errors in reconstruction rather than wilful attempts to mislead or malfunctions in processing.


  • The study and findings may lack validity as students may have consciously change the story or intentionally change it due to demand characteristics and wanting to make the story more entertaining. The story may have simply been misheard as it was being told to them suggesting this may not be sufficient enough evidence for the reconstructive memory having validity as an explanation.
  • The reconstructive memory model makes predicting behaviour difficult and a good explanation for memory should make prediction possible for it to have credibility. The reconstructive model of memory does not predict how experiences or emotions can affect memories but simply gives principles of how reconstruction may work.

Effort after meaning

Bartlett’s war of the ghosts story demonstrated that memory was not an accurate recording of what was happening. He believed that memory was an active process that involved “effort after meaning” which means people try to make sense of something they are unfamiliar with after it has happened into things we already know and understand about how the world works. Due to this process Bartlett believed we often change our memories into versions that are more sensible to us and this involves us making assumptions or guesses on what has or should have happened. This may result in us mistakenly remembering things that are not true or create false memories because they make sense within the situation.

Factors affecting the accuracy of memory Interference

Interference occurs between learning and recall and it can occur in two ways which are proactive interference and retroactive interference. Proactive interference is when an old memory interferes with something a person is trying to remember now. Things we already know can cause problems for us as we try to take on new information. A good example of this is knowing your old postcode but struggling to remember your new one. Retroactive interference is when a new memory interferes with old memories. New things we learn can cause problems for us when we try to recall information that we had learnt before. For example, you may be able to remember your new postcode but you struggle to remember your old one.

False memories

False memories are when we remember something that hasn’t actually happened. Research into this has also shown it is quite possible to plant false memories into someone’s mind. One research study saw participants questioned about their childhood using information from their parents to describe true as well as a false event regarding them getting lost in a shopping centre when young. The results found 25% of participants believed the false memory thinking they had actually become lost and recalled details about what had happened to them while lost.


Context is believed to be another factor that affects the accuracy of memory. For example you find yourself at the top of the stairs only to forget why you have decided to come up or you enter a room only to forget why you were there. This explanation proposes that returning to the context i.e. the place where you originally had the idea can help rekindle the memory for why you were going there. Researchers believe that when we encode information we may also encode the things around us as part of the memory itself such as the sights, sounds, smells and textures etc. Each encoded memory is then associated with different elements of context and when we are put back in that context, those associations are recreated and they stimulate different elements of the memory aiding in recall.