Memory Span: Definition, Measurement & Examples

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Did you know that the average memory span is only 7 items long? In this lesson we will define memory span, discuss memory span as a measurement of short term memory, and more.

What Is Memory Span?

John and Kim have completed an application for their youngest son, Remy, to attend a private high school. As part of the admission criteria, Remy must take several intelligence and aptitude tests. In the first test of the day, the test administrator reads the following numbers '2, 1, 4, 3, 9, 7, 4, 2, 0, 5, 6, 8, 3'. The test administrator then asks Remy to repeat the numbers in order. Remy correct repeats all 13 numbers. Remy was asked to answer a few additional questions that were similar to the first.

Upon completion, Remy was informed that the test administrators were measuring his memory span and that his results showed that he can hold a lot of information in his short term memory and is expected to do well in school.

Memory span refers to the amount of items, e.g. numbers, letters, or words, that a person has the ability to remember. Short term memory refers to where we keep information that we can readily tap into and utilize. We have the ability to keep information in short term memory for an estimated 18 to 20 seconds. The amount of information that we can hold in short term memory is limited. As such, we can measure the size of short term memory by using memory span.

Measuring Memory Span

The structure of most memory span tests is somewhat similar. Typically, the test administrator will read several numbers out loud. The numbers are random, and each number takes about a second to read. Once the numbers have all been read, the test administrator will ask the person being tested to repeat the numbers in the same exact order that they were read. The amount of items that a person can correctly recall in order is the person's memory span for the particular task. For example, Remy's memory span is 13, given that he was able to correctly identify all 13 numbers. Given that the average memory span is seven items, Remy's scores indicate that his memory span is better than most. Memory span tests do not always ask you to recall numbers. For example, you could be given a list of words or letters of the alphabet to recall instead.

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