Development of memory in infancy

Discuss, with reference to appropriate experimental studies, the development of memory in infancy.

Memory is the process of encoding, storing and retrieving information. Encoding is the acquiring and the entering of information into the system. Storage is the retaining of the memories over time, and retrieval is recovering the stored memories when required to do so. Memory consists of three systems. Firstly there is the sensory memory, which is the perceptual system which stores only the recently acquired images for long enough to integrate it with the next, therefore producing an apparent motion. Secondly there is short-term memory that is a temporary storage for small quantities of information for a brief time. Finally the long-term memory system holds relatively permanent information.

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Studying the development of memory in infancy has many benefits, as it helps to show how memory develops over time. This knowledge from research can be applied to different settings, for example an educational setting, where the more a teacher understands about the memory development of children the more they can use this information to guide children’s learning therefore giving the best possible learning outcomes. This essay will discuss the strategies used to help with encoding, storing and retrieving information. To help compare the development of infant’s memory, studies with older children have been included.

Memory strategies are the ways in which people effectively remember information. These strategies include encoding strategies and retrieval strategies. Encoding strategies are used to help enter the information into the memory; this can include rehearsal, organisation and elaboration. Rehearsal refers to the mental repetition of information. Brainerd and Reyna’s (2002) fuzzy trace theory suggests there are two memory representations. These are verbatim trace and gist trace. The verbatim trace refers to remembering information exactly, whereas gist trace is remembering the general meaning of the information. The gist trace representations last, but the verbatim trace representations leads to more forgetting. Flavell, Beach and Chinsky (1966) studied rehearsal in 5 year, 7 year and 10 year olds. Each age group had 20 children, who were all given a set of 7 pictures. The children were told to try and remember some of the pictures. After a 15 seconds gap, the children were asked to say aloud the pictures they could recall. During the 15 seconds gap a lip reader assessed what they believed each children might have been saying to themselves. They found that two of the 5 year olds, more than half of the 7 year olds, and most of the 10 year olds repeated the pictures to themselves. It was found that rehearsal lead to better recall. Flavell et al. (1966) found that age differences may show the development of strategies used, such as rehearsal. Although some of the children may have been using rehearsal strategies, but may not have moved their lips. McGilly and Siegler (1990) carried out an extension on Flavell et al.’s (1966) study, by also asking children to report how they remembered the pictures. They found a high amount of children (74%) reported using rehearsal strategies. However only 39% were observed, by lip reading techniques, using rehearsal strategies. Therefore suggesting that children of all ages use rehearsal, however it may not be as effectively used in younger children (Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2003). This would explain age differences in recall in Flavell et al.’s (1966) study. Ornstein, Naus and Liberty (1975) compared the rehearsal strategies of 7 year olds and adults. Participants were given a word to remember every 5 seconds, and asked to say aloud what they were thinking. They found that children repeated the word until the next word was given, then they would repeat the next word. Whereas adults repeated the word until they were given the second word, then they would repeat both words. Therefore showing that adults effectively used organization, but 7 year old children did not use this at all. This is important in showing that children use rehearsal strategies, but they lack the knowledge of how to effectively use such strategies.

A study by Naus, Ornstein and Aivano (1977) taught 8 year olds a strategy of rehearsing in groups of three. They found that the 8 year olds could recall the same amount as 12 year olds, after being taught the chunking strategy. Therefore younger children can do this, but the organization of rehearsal does not occur naturally at these ages. Organisation, or chunking, is the grouping of information in an effective way to help with encoding. Moely, Olson, Halwes & Flavell (1969) showed children a set of pictures that were in a random order in laid out in front of them. The set included pictures of animals and furniture, for example. The children were instructed to learn all the pictures and if it helped them they were allowed to rearrange the pictures. It was found that the children of 10 years and older had effectively used organisation strategies, as 10 year olds had categorised pictures according to whether it was an animal, or a piece of furniture, etc. As with rehearsal strategies, the younger children were not effectively using the organisation strategy. The children use this strategy, but do not seem to have developed knowledge of how it is best to be used, like the older children had.

Elaboration is the strategy when people make associations between given information to help with encoding and the subsequent recall of this information. Foley, Wilder, McCall and Van Vorst (1993) gave 6 and 9 year olds verbal images to help them to recall pairs of words. The children’s recall was better if the image was basic, yet memorable. Pressley and Levin (1980) found that children of 7 years could use elaboration if an effective image was given with the pair of words, of which one was English and the other was it’s Spanish equivalent. This led to children learning the words better. Therefore children can use elaboration as an encoding strategy when given support, but the use of elaboration by themselves had not yet developed fully. As Buckhalt, Mahoney and Paris (1976) found when children first begin to use elaborations they use simple, static elaboration, whereas older children use active elaborations. Active elaborations are images that are distinctive and therefore remembered better, allowing for a better recall.

Leichtman and Ceci (1995) studied the reliability of children’s testimony. The study was set in a preschool, where a stranger, Sam Stone, came in for a day. Some of the children were then given suggestive interviews every week for four weeks after. All of the children were interviewed on the fifth week, by a new interviewer, who had not seen Sam Stone or any of the previous interviews. The children were firstly asked for a report of what happened on the day of Sam Stone’s visit, and then asked questions. The leading questions had led a high majority of the 3-4 year olds to make false claims, although the 5-6 year olds were less likely to do this. Therefore younger children’s encoding is effected by what is inferred by other people, for example the leading questions in Leichtman and Ceci’s (1995) study inferred that Sam Stone had done something wrong, this lead to 72% of the 3-4 year olds saying he had done it, and 44% even claiming to have seen him do it. The older children were not affected by the leading questions as much, therefore showing that the encoding for the older children may have been better as they felt secure in what they could recall.

Retrieval strategies are the ways in which people recall information from long-term memory. Kreutzer, Leonard and Flavell (1975) studied how 5 and 10 year olds would retrieve information from long-term memory. They used a story and asked the children how they could remember the answer. Kreutzer et al. (1975) found all 10 year olds could think of one way at least, whereas only half the 5 year olds could do this. Therefore the 5 year olds had not all developed effective retrieval strategies. Kobasigawa (1974) used 24 pictures, from 8 categories, for children of 6, 8 and 11 years of age to learn. Along with the pictures the children were shown 8 cue cards, one for each category. Later on the children were shown the cue cards and asked to recall the earlier pictures. A third of the 6 year olds used the cue cards, whereas most of the older groups did this. The 11 year olds only effectively used the cue cards, by using them to help name all the pictures they could remember from that category. The 6 and 8 year olds who used the cue cards, only named one picture from each category. Therefore suggesting that the 6 year olds had not developed the knowledge of how to use cue cards. The 8 year olds knew to use the cue cards, but they didn’t know exactly how to use them. Therefore full knowledge of the usefulness of cue cards must develop later on, as the 11 year olds could use them effectively. Retrieval cues, such as cue cards, are strong aids to recall, according to Nelson (1990) people have no early memories because verbal cues are used as retrieval cues. Simcock and Hayne (2002) assessed the language skills of infants of 27, 33 and 39 months, and then tested the infants verbally and non-verbally. The infants were then tested on their recall at 6 or 12 months later. Simcock and Hayne (2002) found retention on both verbal and non-verbal recall, however non-verbal memory recall was better than verbal. They also found that verbal recall reflected the verbal abilities at the time of encoding, therefore showing that encoding is important in the recall of information.

Overall many of the basic processes are seen at birth, and are crucial from the early days. Memory strategies develop from the second year, but only become predominant between 5 to 7 years old, these strategies include rehearsal, organisation and elaboration. With age comes the development of quality, frequency, flexibility and the effective use of these strategies. Changes in the efficiency with age of encoding can be seen, as at the age of 2-5 years children can hold from 2 to 4 pieces of information in short-term memory, and at 7 years this is increased to 5 pieces of information. This is through the effective use of rehearsal, as this helps the child to become better at registering information as well as organising it and therefore helping to make storage and retrieval easier.

Meta-cognitive skills refer to knowing that you know. Implicit knowledge of meta-cognition skills can be seen later on in infancy, whereas explicit knowledge develops from the age of 5 to 15. In general children under-report, therefore specific questioning leads to greater reporting and prevents the information from decay. To increase retrieval of information in infants it is important to encourage them to think deeply about what they are being asked to remember (Butler, Gross & Hayne, 1995). The phrasing of the question can clearly lead children into the answer they think the interviewer wants, as Leichtman and Ceci’s (1995) study has shown.

An important area to study in memory is forgetting, as a lot can be learnt about memory from what is not remembered as well as what is. For example, Hartshorn et al. (1998) found that infants aged between 2 and 18 months exhibited retention after the shortest test delays. They also found as the interval increased the younger infants were the first to forget, this is determined by experience. This study shows that forgetting is affected by experience; therefore what is remembered must also be affected by experience. Research into memory development in infants needs to take into account the biological side, as the brain is still changing and developing itself and plays a huge role in memory.


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Brainerd, C. J., & Reyna, V. F. (2002). Fuzzy-trace theory and false memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, p. 164-169.

Buckhalt, J.A., Mahoney, G. J., & Paris, S. G. (1976). Efficiency of self-generated elaborations by EMR and nonretarded children. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 81, p. 93-96.

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Foley, M. A., Wilder, A., McCall, R., & Van Vorst, R. (1993). The consequences for recall of children’s ability to generate interactive imagery in the absence of external supports. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 56, p. 173-200.

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