How to Design Better Courses and Improve Learner Retention by Understanding Memory Systems

By Jacques Fourie

Memory is a fundamental aspect of all learning since it stores and retrieves learned information. Conversely, learning also depends on memory because stored knowledge in your memory provides the framework to link new knowledge. Subsequently, high-quality learning experiences should be memorable. In this blog post, we will unpack what memory is, how it works, and how to best align learning design frameworks to the cognitive architecture of learners

Memory and Formal Education

Our memory systems play a vital part in all learning processes, and our stored and recalled memories are indicators that learning has taken place. In formal education, such memories will include:

What is Memorable Learning Design?

Memorable learning design is a highly effective, evidence-based approach that informs the design and organization of learning experiences. The approach is grounded in the relationship between learning and memory, and it is supported predominantly by empirical research conducted by cognitive psychologists.

In cognitive psychology, experts have agreed on principles that explain the relationship between memory and learning. Memorable learning design acknowledges these principles and approaches and uses them to inform the design of learning experiences.

To create memorable learning experiences, we need to consider the cognitive architecture of learners, i.e., mental structures and processes, and evidence-based practices to ensure that encoding and retrieval happen optimally. So, let’s examine how memories are formed through exploring an influential model utilized in cognitive psychology.

Human Cognitive Architecture: The (Non-Linear) Multi-Store Model

The (Non-Linear) Multi-Store Model, emerged from research in cognitive psychology, and it describes memory as consisting of three interconnected components. Namely, sensory memory, working memory, and long term memory.

1. Sensory memory refers to the part of the system that transforms incoming stimuli into information. It has a large capacity, but a very short duration (less than three seconds). The ability to glance at something and remember what it looked like is an example of sensory memory.

2. Working memory is what you are currently thinking about, it is where you hold new information, and it is where you integrate new information with your knowledge from long-term memory. It has a limited capacity (about seven chunks of information). Working memory has three distinctive features:

How information flows and creates long term memory.
3. Long term memory is a permanent store of knowledge and potentially, it has an unlimited capacity. There are two main types of long term memory —  Implicit and Explicit Memory:

In education, we predominantly develop a learner´s explicit memory, which is weaker than our implicit memory.

All three components—sensory memory, working memory, and long term memory—interact with each other and long term memory plays an important role in influencing what we allocate attention to, what information we process, and what we remember. Let us explore some evidence-based educational principles that emerged from the multi-store model.

An Overview of Evidence-Based Principles and Practices

There are four general memory principles that we can use to guide our learning design practices. These principles and practices are explained below.

1. Sensory memory: unattended information is lost.
2. Working memory has a limited capacity and if exceeded you cannot learn new things.
3. Explicit long term memory is supported through effortful processing and making information meaningful.
4. Forgetting can be Minimized

Through applying these evidence-based practices in your course design, learners will develop rich and differentiated schemas. This will improve their ability to store new and more complex information, and ultimately, help learners to solve real-world problems with a higher degree of automaticity.

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Jacques Fourie

Jacques Fourie
Learning Designer

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