Primary/Recency Effect

"We tend to remember best that which comes first, and remember second best that which comes last. We tend to remember least that which comes just past the middle of the episode." (Sousa, 88)

We've known since the work of Ebbinghaus in the 1880's that in any learning episode, we retain most easily what we learn at the beginning of a session, or at the end. More recent research explains that the first items of new information are stored in the working memory, and that these are most likely to be retained in long-term memory, if both sense and meaning are present.

Sousa refers to the beginning of a learning session as "Prime Time 1" and to the end of a learning session as "Prime Time 2". The part in the middle he calls "down time".

Practical implications

Sousa cautions us not to ask learners to "guess" at the beginning of a session, as whatever is said - even if it is incorrect - will be recalled. This goes contrary to some of the strategies commonly taught in ISWs. Sousa says it is most valuable to use that initial high learning opportunity to get across the most important aspect of the new learning (and to avoid taking attendance or carrying out low-level administrative tasks during that valuable time).

In ISW terminology, the "Bridge" is Prime Time 1 and should be used to convey something you really want learners to retain. As for "Pre-tests" or "Prior Learning Checks" they still serve to inform the instructor of the learners' starting point and are useful when linking new learning to prior learning.

It is valuable to use "down time" during the Participatory Lesson, to engage learners actively in discussing and applying new learning or in guessing (predicting).

As suggested by Royal Roads University, Sousa reinforces the value of breaking down learning into twenty-minute episodes. It increases the prime times and reduces the down times. He also stresses the importance of having learners create questions on new learning.

Lastly, he reinforces the importance of ensuring learners have reflective time at the end of each learning session to think or write about what they've learned. An instructor can provide a review or summary before this closure, but according to Sousa, it is essential that the final moments of a learning episode belong to the learner in order to attach sense and meaning to the new learning, to determine how it will be transferred to 'long-term storage'.


Short-term memory includes the early steps of temporary memory that lead to stable long-term memory and includes immediate memory and working memory (Squire and Kanel (1999), pp. 84-85).

Immediate Memory

Sousa likens immediate memory to a clipboard, where sensory data that has survived the move from the thalamus to the sensory processing areas of the cortex, can be temporarily stored for up to about 30 seconds. During this time, the immediate memory consciously or unconsciously decides whether to drop or retain it.

Working memory

The second temporary memory is the place where conscious, rather than subconscious, processing occurs. The retention time span for adolescents and adults is usually ten to twenty minutes (Peter Russell, 1979), although some items, especially unresolved ones, can remain in working memory for hours or days, and even interfere with the accurate processing of other information. The working memory can retain a limited number of items at one time, usually seven chunks of information for a normal adult.

Long-term memory usually refers to the process of putting information away and retrieving it. We tend to retain data that either make sense or have meaning for us, with the latter taking primacy. Items that make sense, fit the learner's worldview, or can be understood because of the learner's past experience. Items that have meaning for the learner are relevant to him/her. Items that both make sense and have meaning have the greatest likelihood of being stored in our long-term memories, especially if they come at the beginning or end of a learning episode, and generate emotions.

In the process of long-term memory encryption, the hippocampus encodes information and sends it to long-term storage areas. This time-consuming encoding process usually occurs during deep sleep. Typically, the greatest loss of newly acquired information or skills occurs between 18-24 hours after the learning. For this reason, if a learner cannot recall new learning after 24 hours it is highly likely that it was not permanently stored.

Long-term storage usually refers to the places in the brain where memories are kept. A single memory will be stored in a variety of sites. When the memory is recalled, it reassembles from its various sites.

Adapted from How the Brain Learns by David A. Sousa, Second Edition, Corwin Press Inc, a Sage Publications Company, Thousand Oaks, California, 2001.