Once information is taken in through sensory perception, it is sent to working memory for encoding and consolidation which prepares memory for long-term storage. Working memory is the “thinking” part of the brain that only concerns itself with conscious, cognitive memory. If efficiently processed, cognitive memory possesses the ability to call to mind stored memory and use it to respond to new situations and information (Eichenbaum 259). During processing, cognitive memory is made sense of through connections made to existing cognitive structures (called schema or cognitive maps). This is important because new synaptic formation plateaus as a young child, after that, new learning must be connected to prior knowledge and cognitive structures. There is no limit to the amount of learning we can commit to memory “as long as we relate it to what we already know” (Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel 76).
Information is thus committed to long-term memory by relating it to already stored memories. This linking creates the connectivity that can then be drawn upon to make future retrieval possible. Retrieval is important because “new learning depends on prior learning, the more we learn, the more possible connections we create for further learning" (Brown, Roediger, McDaniel 76). In other words, learning is not static and disconnected, instead it is flexible and builds upon existing cognitive structures. Researchers Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel explain, “all new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge” (5). Transfer, then, is reliant on the processes of building cognitive structures for knowledge, so that information can be later found (retrieved) and brought back into working memory to be of use when confronting new problems and situations. Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel define learning as “acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities” (2). However, before memories can be retrieved, they must be properly encoded in the first place.
Just as finding a specific file on top of a messy, unorganized desk is made more difficult than one neatly stored in an organized fashion, so to is it necessary to store memory via an organized system for eventual retrieval. Encoding is the critical process occurring in working memory which labels each item by making sense of it within existing understandings and storage structures. Encoding activities refer to those which cause the student to "gather and represent information" (Tomei 7). Howard Eichenbaum, a professor of cognitive psychology, explains the relationship between new and prior knowledge when he writes, "Encoding organization involves the framework of meaningful connections between items within mental representations...encoding of new information is strongly influenced by the schema, or prior knowledge structure, of the rememberer" (267). Schema represents the organized structure which encoded memory is eventually stored for future retrieval (Tomei 7). Some scholars have referred to the schema as a sort of cognitive map that acts as “a mental representation of the environment” created by the hippocampus (Eichenbaum 282). Following the encoding and connecting of information, knowledge becomes what is known as “memory traces” and must be consolidated into existing structures to be made into memory.
In consolidation, memory traces are strengthened to prepare for long-term storage (Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel 73). Consolidation works through a series of rehearsing, meaning-making, bridging gaps, and making connections to prior knowledge (Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel 49, 73). The entire process of consolidation can take several hours or days to complete. Consolidation acts as a critical component for forming long-term memory as it makes connections and logs memories into the cognitive structures from which those memories will later be retrieved. Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel recognize the importance of consolidation for later retrieval of memories when they write, “the fact that retrieval practice, spacing, rehearsal, rule learning, and the construction of mental models improves learning and memory is evidence of neruoplasticity and is consistent with scientists' understanding of memory consolidation as as agent for increasing and strengthening the neural pathways by which one is later able to retrieve and apply learning" (172). All of the work done during encoding and consolidation stages of processing prepare the way for later retrieval.