The Role of Encoding in Learning

Although it has been largely misconstrued and criticized, memory is critical to learning since it is a prerequisite to amassing knowledge, which is necessary for critical thinking and creative problem-solving. 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 foundational for creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and even for communicating effectively. Amassed knowledge is the bedrock upon which transfer is built. Encoding is the process through which we store information in long term memory. In other words, information becomes knowledge when it is encoded in a relatable and meaningful way.

Therefore, encoding techniques support the storage of this information into long-term memory. They allow us to make information meaningful because they force us to work actively with what we are trying to learn. Our brain does not store information just because it is important. By applying a technique to support encoding, we communicate to our brain that this is something we want (or need) to remember. We often rely on more than one technique to learn effectively. In meta-analyses, teaching students strategies such as mnemonics to help them organize and make sense of knowledge had a large and consistent benefit to learning1, 2.

One of the most important factors when it comes to encoding new information is prior knowledge, as acquiring knowledge requires connections with information we already know. Learning is cumulative, and our learning process is fundamentally impacted by our prior knowledge and past experiences with learning.3 Think of it this way, if you are studying geography and need to learn the main exports of a country, the whole process would be easier if you already knew some things about that country (like its capital city, where it is located on the map or the type of weather it has), than if you’ve never heard about it before.

That being said, prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. For someone with robust prior knowledge, new information quickly receives meaning, and, as a result, encoding is strong.4 Whereas when there is less or incorrect prior knowledge, forming connections is more difficult, and this leads to weaker encoding. Going back to the geography example, if I know that the country I’m studying about has a warm and humid weather when in reality it has a cold and dry one, this information might be an obstacle in the encoding process. Strong encoding is fundamental to whether knowledge can be retrieved and applied when called upon, as well as to continued encoding of new knowledge. There is a circular dynamic between encoding and retrieval as they feed each other.


  1. Kim, D., Kim, B. N., Lee, K., Park, J. K., Hong, S., & Kim, H. (2008). Effects of cognitive learning strategies for Korean learners: A meta-analysis. Asia Pacific Education Review, 9(4), 409-422.
  2. Yildirim, İ., Cirak-Kurt, S., & Sedat, S. E. N. (2019). The effect of teaching “learning strategies” on academic achievement: A meta-analysis study. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, 19(79), 87-114.
  3. Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 417-444.
  4. Alismail, H. A., & McGuire, P. (2015). 21st century standards and curriculum: Current research and practice. Journal of Education and Practice, (6), 150-154
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