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How We Remember

Successful learning involves the encoding and retrieval of information. Take a moment to think about how the material gets into the long-term memory and what you can do to improve this process. This article describes the current thoughts on how we remember and offers considerations for improving the process.

The Process of Learning

Information becomes encoded into memory through the conversion of perceptions into chemical or electrical changes in the brain. This process forms mental representation of the patterns observed in the short-term memory.

Over time there is movement of mental representations into long-term memory. Consolidation reorganises and stabilises memory traces, while deep processing gives it meaning and fills in missing information. Connections with previous material and important aspects of the new information become salient.

Retrieval causes ‘reconsolidation’ as learning is reconstructed from components of the long-term memory. This enables learning to become pliable again and makes salient aspects clearer. This helps reinforce meaning, strengthens connections to existing (and more recent) knowledge, bolsters retrieval cues and weakens competing retrieval routes. The more effort that is required, providing the effort succeeds, the more the act of recalling benefits learning. Knowledge and skills are more easily remembered if they hold a greater significance, are periodically practiced or are vivid in nature.

The Natural Flow of Memory

Our memory is separated down into three major categories: sensory memory, working memory and long-term memory. We discuss each in turn and describe implications they have on learning design.

Sensory Memory

Working Memory

Long-Term Memory

Sensory Memory

This is the first filter of all of our senses and perceptions. We only retain information that is useful or noteworthy. Sensory memory is susceptible to habituation. This occurs when we get used to a sensory stimulus and stop noticing it.

Working (Short-Term) Memory

The working memory acts as a gatekeeper for the long-term memory. It holds information that has got past your sensory filter. This information is usually significant to you, actively sought by you, needs to be acted on, surprises you or confounds your expectations.

Only limited amounts of information can be stored here, and this is only possible for a short duration. It may remain there longer if it is unusual or important to you. It is also possible to keep it there through repetition or chunking. Information that occurs first (primacy) or information that is learned recently (recency) is also more memorable.

Long-Term Memory

Long-term memory can be viewed as a closet made of a series of shelves (cues). Anything you remember gets stored in this closet for retrieval at a later date. Its location depends upon the associations you form at the time of commitment. This means it is possible for a memory to be stored on multiple shelves at one time.

Your ability to retrieve a memory depends on the conditions and contents of the shelves it is stored on. The more shelves it is stored on, the easier the retrieval. Retrieval difficulties are encountered when shelves are poorly constructed and offer little context, if they are overcrowded and not specific enough or if the memories get stored on unintended shelves.

Long term memory can be broken down into five main categories.

Declarative (Semantic) Memory

This is the stuff you know you know. Think facts, principles or ideas.

Episodic Memory

This is related to specific events or experiences you’ve had. It uses storytelling to increase our ability to remember. It includes facts, principles or ideas.

  • These memories tend to follow a framework (beginning, middle and end) and are made up of a sequence with logical flow. Characters provide an additional facet making it stories easier to recall.

Conditional Memory

A stimulus causes an autonomic response. Think Pavlov’s Dog. It is a form of implicit memory.

Procedural Memory

A step-by-step process on how to do things. It may be implicit or explicit and it becomes an unconscious habit with repeated practice.

  • It is often tricky to talk about as we have not learned to do the procedure in an explicit way.

Flash Bulb Memory

Vivid memories form during emotionally charged events.

  • The emotion opens the floodgates to long term memory. We want to remember how we escaped the tiger!

Improving Learning Design

In the following section we discuss ways in which you can improve your lesson design to benefit learning for each type of memory.

Sensory Memory

Consistency can be useful as learners don’t expend energy interpreting the lesson format. However, consistency can also lead to habituation. Thus, a degree of variety in teaching methods and presentation of information is necessary to prevent habituation. Any variation should be deliberate and meaningful.

Working Memory

If the working memory is overloaded, it is more difficult for information to make the transition to the long-term memory. This means less information is more. You may also attempt to focus attention on a specific learning point by using chunking or by presenting higher level organisation to the learning material.

Long-Term Memory

The context in which material is learned becomes associated with the memory. Therefore, you should try and encode information in the environment in which you will retrieve it. This is also true for the emotional context. Thus, if you use information in a stressful situation, you should practice it in similarly stressful scenarios.

Information can be encoded into long term memory through sheer repetition. This is inefficient as it is both time consuming and clunky. Ideas are placed firmly onto one shelf making retrieval for use in multiple contexts difficult and information may only be accessed sequentially in the order it was learned rather than at random. Thus, simply learning by rote is a bad choice.

The crux of teaching is encoding information for retrieval. Think about how the information will be used. Is it for recognition or recall? Is it to be integrated with existing knowledge or applied to new challenges? The more complex the cognitive task required; the higher the level of understanding must be. Information should be retrieved and applied to practice in same way it is needed to be used.

What You Know

There is often a difference between what you think you know and what you really know. This frequently occurs when you recognise something and incorrectly assume you know more about it. When faced with the need to retrieve this extra knowledge, you will struggle. One method for countering this is to practice retrieval. The following diagram shows the overlap between things you think you know and what you actually know.

Memory venn diagram


  • Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning; Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel
  • Design for how people Learn; Julie Dirksen