The Difference between Short-Term, Long-Term and Working Memory

Article adapted from 

For the most part, memory and how it works has largely been a mystery to experts. However, what scientists do know is that memory is partitioned into several different parts—primarily short-term memory, long-term memory, and working memory.

Working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory all play an important role in remembering, learning, and creating. It is safe to say that without memory, human progress would not exist.

Short-term memory differs from long-term memory in two fundamental ways, with only short-term memory demonstrating temporal decay and capacity limits. Long-term memory however, can store vast amounts of information and is permanent.

Short-term memory gives the ability for the human brain to keep information in the mind for a very short period of time, such as remembering a phone number long enough until you are able to dial it on our phones. The extent of short-term memory lasts within seconds to minutes then dissipates if effort is not made to retain the information for long-term use.

It is commonly believed that the capacity of short-term memory (and also working memory) is 7 +/- 2. That is, on average, humans are able to hold seven random and unrelated objects simultaneously in the short-term memory bank, give or take 2. In other words, short-term memory holds about 5-9 items at one time

It is believed that short-term memory is a primary function of the prefrontal cortex. Once memory is consolidated, it is carried over to the hippocampus wherein long-term memories are formed and stored permanently. This conversion from short-term to long-term memory requires concerted effort, the passage of time, and the absence of interference in memory consolidation.

Things learned on a daily basis dissipate unless consolidation takes place, in which it is transferred into the long-term memory bank. So how does consolidation take place? It takes place with repetition and review. The more something is repeated and used, the more neuronal connections the brain makes, wherein the neural pathways used for the specific information become stronger. In the process, the synapses become stronger between the two neurons as signals are more frequently passed between them. If short-term memory is consolidated and stored in the long-term memory, it becomes permanently ingrained, accessible for later use. If the memory does not consolidate, it will not be available for later use and access. Ultimately, the role of short-term memory is to file information for temporary usage. If it is not consolidated, it is discarded. This process of discarding is important to make room for learning and new memories. 

Each item passing through the short-term or working memory is ‘assigned’ a primal, emotional reaction. Sometimes these can be threatening and embedded into the long-term memory as such (i.e., difficulty experienced with a subject topic, for example, trigonometry > trigonometry is assigned an emotional memory). These emotions may even evoke a reaction – fighting against the memory, or fleeing or ignoring the memory. 

The central executive functioning region (located in the prefrontal cortex) seems to play a fundamental role in both short-term and working memory. The region serves as a temporary storage facility for short-term memory while at the same time making the memory available for recall and manipulation. The ability to manipulate information is essentially the theoretical difference between short-term memory and working memory. Short-term memory is used to describe the ability to store temporary information for immediate retrieval and discard, while working memory is used to describe the use of information for manipulation.

In a nutshell:

Image by Bethanie Shanon Carroll.


Study Skills for Success

  • Repeated exposure/revision: The more you review information, the further access you have to retrieve information, as neural pathways are strengthened…

Image by Bethanie Shanon Carroll.

  • Getting Organised before you start: Before we even get started on memory tricks, there’s something fundamental we need to begin with. If there’s one enemy of a good memory, it’s disorganisation. A cluttered working space with unfiled notes here, there and everywhere; a notepad filled with scrawl on numerous different subjects with no particular order; a poor computer filing system. All these spell disaster for your ability to recall facts in the exam room. So, start by getting yourself organised.
    • Tidy your room, or whichever space you’re using for studying.
    • Get your notes organised neatly into different subjects.
    • Write up an overview of each subject before you study – all the themes, subtopics, and what exactly will be covered in the test. Physically decluttering and bringing about order in your environment has the strange effect of doing the same to the mind (perhaps there is something in feng shui), making you far better able to cope with memorising and recalling facts. (Adapted from research by Oxford Royal Academy)
    • Add all exams to a calendar, so you know how many days you have to study for each exam – this can be a big calendar you stick onto your wall above your desk, or if you prefer the tech route – MyStudyLife – School Planner is a free calendar, homework diary, planner and reminder!


  • Designing a Study Schedule: You can download a template and plot your extra murals, extra lessons, support classes, as well as your homework/project time, and set out study slots. Getting stuck? Try these tips: WikiHow Setting Up A Planner.Here is an example of a blank study timetable you can download, downloadable from www.theorganisedstudent.tumblr.comResearch has shown that your brain focuses optimally for 25-35 minutes, upon which time you need a short break. You can split your work into 25 minute slots with 5 minute water/walk/loo time. 
  • Memory Techniques (see for detail and practical application): 
    • Acronyms
    • Acrostics
    • Rhyme-keys
    • Method of Loci
    • Keywords
    • Image-Name Associations
    • Chaining
    • Detailing
    • Visualisation
    • Learn by Mistake
    • Repetition – Listening, Doing, Reading
    • Organise a List
    • Story Lining
    • Dramatise
    • Single Line
    • Walk Studying
    • Feeding a Line
    • Handwritten Notes


  • Setting Facts and Figures to Music!: It can be much easier to remember the lyrics to favourite songs thanto recall dry information such as the names and dates of the English monarchs or Roman emperors. If you’re struggling to commit a chain of information to memory, try putting a tune to it. Even a rap will do! Then all you need to do is remember the tune and the words should come flooding back. To make it easier to recall, you could try using a tune you already know – perhaps even a children’s nursery rhyme, if you can bear to associate a childhood favourite with your present exams! As long as you’re guaranteed to remember it, though, anything goes. (Adapted from research by Oxford Royal Academy)
  • Get Enough Sleep! Sleeping has been said to be important in the consolidation of memory and learning. Studies of rats found that that more genes are expressed during sleep, and activities displayed during spatial learning are replayed in the hippocampus during sleep. As such, it is important to get a good night’s sleep before a test/exam to allow for the information to be accessed the following day. 

For further information or to inquire about our Study Skills Workshops, please contact Liz King on