The Importance of Memory in Learning

In the last couple of decades, the importance of memory has been highly criticized and disregarded in education. On one hand, it is not uncommon for students to wonder why they would ever need to memorize information when everything is available online. On the other hand, parents and educators have long stated that they are more interested in developing things like students’ creativity or critical thinking than their memory. However, these claims are rooted in a deep misunderstanding of how memory works and how it can contribute to the learning process.  It is quite common to think that memory only has to do with rote learning, that is learning something just to be able to repeat it even if you don’t really understand it. This means a student could regurgitate material they learned superficially only to perform academically, particularly on standardized tests, which allow students to infer and respond without demonstrating mastery. However, these students lack the level of understanding required for the material to become reliable knowledge that can deliver benefits outside of exams. It is undeniable that creativity and critical thinking are crucial to the proper development of students, and it is understandable that educators would want to prioritize them. However, the role of memory in both of these processes is often overlooked. Memory is critical to learning because it is a prerequisite to amassing knowledge. Prior knowledge, in turn, is a prerequisite to thinking critically and problem-solving creatively. An education succeeds when students learn to learn independently. A learner succeeds when they can apply what they learn to other contexts—which is called transfer. This is also foundational for creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and even for communicating effectively. Therefore, amassed knowledge is the bedrock upon which transfer and 21st-century skills are built. For transfer to occur, we must ensure students achieve mastery. Only once they have mastered what we teach them will they be able to derive real value out of it. 1, 2 So, how do we acquire new knowledge? Psychology divides memory into three processes: encoding, storing, and retrieving. When we convert information into knowledge, we have encoded the information in a meaningful way so that it is relatable to our mind, and therefore, reliably stored. Information becomes knowledge when the web of what we know can establish connections with the information we are learning. We do not learn new information in isolation of what we already know; instead, what we know enables us to learn new information because it provides “hooks” to make sense of the new information. Once the encoding process is completed, we store this encoded information as memories for extended periods of time in long-term memory. Finally, in everyday thinking, retrieval of information extracts memories from storage in long-term memory to working memory. Research has clearly shown the central role that memory plays in the learning process. In order to have students who can think critically and creatively, we need to equip them with knowledge and this can only happen through memory. Luckily, there are many evidence based techniques and strategies to encode and retrieve information. Unfortunately, research has long brought to light that students generally lack an understanding of how they learn. Moreover, the way they think they learn tends to vary greatly from how they actually learn. If students persistently rely on the least effective strategies to learn, they will work too hard, ineffectively and/or misguidedly in their pursuit of learning. Therefore, in order for students to matriculate in schools knowing how to encode and retrieve information effectively, these skills must be taught.1, 3 COGx partners with Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) member schools in the process of innovating the way they teach. Initiatives like MTC are changing the narrative of what education looks like by thinking about how teaching and learning can evolve in schools in order to promote mastery learning and transfer. Schools completed our programs on the Science of Learning for leaders, educators and students. Through these programs they learned how to foster metacognition, how to avoid cognitive overload and how to give effective feedback, among many other things. Furthermore, students learned evidence based study strategies and educators discovered what engages and motivates students. 97% of participants said they would recommend the program to others. This way, educators and students are empowered with evidence based tools that they can apply for the rest of their lives.

Encoding Techniques

As formerly  mentioned, encoding is the process through which information becomes knowledge. This occurs when information goes from short-term memory to long-term memory. One of the most important factors when it comes to encoding new information is prior knowledge. Learning is cumulative, and our learning process is fundamentally impacted by our prior knowledge and past experiences with learning. Encoding techniques support the storage of information into long-term memory, allowing us to make information meaningful as they force us to work actively with what we are trying to learn. These techniques include: association, mind maps, linking, the method of Loci and visualization, among many more. As a matter of fact, association and visualization underlie most other techniques, but it is important to learn many of them, since encoding techniques are more effective when layered.4, 5

Retrieval strategies

Memory retrieval refers to pulling a stored memory out of long-term memory and into working memory for continued processing and use. We usually think of tests and exams as the ideal moment where retrieval comes into play, but in actuality retrieval occupies a central role in the learning process. Research shows that by shifting the focus from primarily storing information to actually recalling it or retrieving it, students greatly improve their ability to learn and they learn more efficiently. In addition, studies suggest we increase the likelihood of being able to remember and apply information when we practice retrieving it rather than doing something passive, like repeating it or rereading it. As a result, students can benefit from applying retrieving strategies while they study as this improves the way they recall or retrieve information. Some of these strategies are: elaboration, self-testing and spacing.3, 6, 7


  1. Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444.
  2. Alismail, H. A., & McGuire, P. (2015). 21st century standards and curriculum: Current research and practice. Journal of Education and Practice, (6), 150-154
  3. Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2020). Desirable difficulties in theory and practice. Journal of Applied research in Memory and Cognition, (4), 475.
  4. Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(3), 283-302.
  5. Cloke, H. (2018, March 30). What is the forgetting curve (and how do you combat it)? eLearning Industry.
Science of Learning Insights to Your Inbox.​

Subscribe to receive these evidence-based insights. Together let’s deepen our understanding of the science behind effective teaching and learning.