Memory - Theories and Processes

Underlying memory improvement are a few basic concepts. Although we will not go into extensive detail about theories of memory, we will present some of the basic ideas to help you understand why certain techniques work.


The first process of memory is attention. There is much more information in your environment than you can process at any one time. Thus, you must make choices (conscious and unconscious) regarding the stimuli to which you will attend. Imagine two students who are driving to Padre Island, TX for spring break. Both have different plans for how they want to spend their vacation: one listening to local bands, the other surfing and swimming. They stop to eat at a sidewalk cafe, where they are approached by a stranger who asks if they know of a surf shop nearby. Assuming they passed one on the way to the cafe, the chances are that the surfer, but not the friend, would have remembered seeing it. Had the stranger asked about music clubs, you might find the opposite scenario. Each one likely attended to what was of interest. We will have more to say about attention later, but we present the idea here to emphasize the roles attention and selection play in our memory.


Once something is attended to, it must be encoded to be remembered. Basically, encoding refers to translating incoming information into a mental representation that can be stored in memory. You can encode the same information in a number of different ways. For example, you can encode information according to its sound (acoustic code), what it looks like (visual code), or what it means (semantic code). Suppose, for example, that you are trying to remember these three types of encoding from your notes. You might say each of the terms aloud and encode the sounds of the words (acoustic), you might see the three types of encoding on your page and visualize the way the words look (visual), or you might think about the meanings of each of the terms (semantic).

How does encoding apply to memory? Well, the way you encode information may affect what you remember and how you recall it later. If you encoded the three things visually or acoustically, but not semantically, you may be able to list them during a test, but you may have difficulty recalling what each term means. If you encoded them only semantically, you might be able to explain what they mean but have difficulty remembering the order in which they were listed on the page.

You may be able to remember information best if you use techniques (while retrieving the information) that are related to the way you encoded it. For example, if you encoded something visually, you will be able to recall it most easily by drawing on visual cues. You will find that many of the memory techniques discussed in this section are designed to help you encode the information in different ways.


Storage is the process of holding information in your memory. A distinction is often made between short-term and long-term memory. Short-term memory is just that, brief and transient. Think about looking up a new phone number in the phone book and making a call. You may remember it long enough to make the call, but do not recall it later. This is your short-term memory, which can hold a small amount of information for a short period of time. Once you stop attending to the number, perhaps after you make the call and move on to another task, you are likely to forget it. In order to remember the number for a longer period of time (and after attending to other things), you would need to store it in your long-term memory.

The transfer of information from short- to long-term memory can be achieved in many ways. Simply repeating the information can help if it's repeated enough times. For example, frequently called phone numbers are remembered because you have used (repeated) the number many times. Although simply repeating, or practicing, something can help move it into long-term memory, another strategy for transferring information is to think about it deeply. That is, elaborate on the information, drawing connections between what you are trying to remember and the other things with which you are already familiar. You might learn that telephone number quicker, for example, if you notice that it includes the dates of your friend's birthday, the numbers on your license plate, or some other familiar number pattern.


Retrieval is the process of actually remembering something when you want to. If you think about tip-of-the-tongue experiences, when you know a word or name but just can't seem to recall it, you will understand how retrieval is different from storage. In terms of memory improvement, it can help to understand how the retrieval process relates to encoding and storage. Consider the relationship between retrieval and encoding. If you encoded something visually, but are trying to retrieve it acoustically, you will have difficulty remembering. Like encoding, information can be retrieved through visualizing it, thinking about the meaning, or imagining the sound, etc. The more ways information has been encoded, the more ways there are for retrieving it. Imagine that you are taking a test in which you are given a definition and asked to recall the word it describes. You may recall the page of your notes that the word was on and visualize the word, or you might say the definition to yourself and remember yourself repeating the word. Thus, memory is aided by encoding and retrieving information in multiple ways.

Retrieval relates to storage as well, Obviously the memory has to be stored in order for you to retrieve it, but knowing how it was stored can help. This is where elaboration and processing come in. When attempting to retrieve information, it helps to think about related ideas. For example, you are trying to remember a chemistry formula during an exam. Although you are able to visualize the page of your chemistry notes, you cannot recall the exact formula. You do remember, however, that this same formula was used in the biology class you took last semester. As you think about that class, you are able to recall the formula. This is one reason why intentionally organizing information in your memory when you are learning it helps you recall it later.


Attention ----> Encoding ----> Storage ----> Retrieval

Here are the steps of memory discussed thus far. First, you select the information to which you will attend. You then code the information for storage (where it can be practiced and processed more deeply). Later, when needed, information is retrieved by using a search strategy that parallels how the information was coded and stored.


Although information can be stored in long-term memory for extended periods of time, "memory decay" does take place. In other words, we can forget what we learn. In fact, we forget things quickest shortly after we learn them. This has two implications in terms of improving our memory. First, as disheartening as it is, you will often learn a great deal more than you can retain in the long run. But, before you lose heart entirely, keep in mind that the memories can be retained with a little effort. So, the second implication for improving memory involves maintaining memories with the least amount of effort. In order to retain information in memory, you must practice, think about, and sometimes relearn things. Every time you practice and relearn the information, you are reinforcing it in your memory. Taking a few moments to do frequent, but brief, reviews will save you time by helping you retain what you have learned. For example, it's a good idea to make rehearsal part of your reading and note-taking regimen. When you complete a reading assignment or a note-taking session, take a few minutes to rehearse the material as a way of moving the information from short-term to long-term memory. Not that this practice alone is sufficient to prepare for most test, but it will enhance your understanding and recall of the material, facilitating serious study.

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