3.2 Improving Your Memory

“Your self is created by your memories, and your memories are created by your mental habits.”
– Rick Warren

Questions to consider:

  • How does working memory work, exactly?
  • What’s the difference between working and short-term memory?
  • What obstacles exist to remembering?
  • In what situations is it best to memorize, and what do you memorize?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe strategies for deciding which course content to learn and retain
  • Differentiate between short-term and long-term memory, and describe the role of each in effective studying
  • Identify memory-strengthening strategies

How Memory Works

Memory is the process of storing and retrieving information. There are two types of memory: short-term or active memory and long-term or passive memory.

Nelson Cowan is one researcher who is working to explain what we do know about memory. His article “What Are the Differences between Long-Term, Short-Term, and Working Memory?” breaks down the different types of memory and what happens when we recall thoughts and ideas. When we remember something, we actually do quite a lot of thinking.1

We go through three basic steps when we remember ideas or images: we encode, store, and retrieve that information.

3 boxes of text. From left to right: Encoding, Storage, Retrieval.

Encoding is how we first perceive information through our senses, such as when we smell a lovely flower or a putrid trash bin. Both make an impression on our minds through our sense of smell and probably our vision. Our brains encode, or label, this content in short-term memory in case we want to think about it again.

If the information is important and we have frequent exposure to it, the brain will store it for us in case we need to use it in the future in our aptly named long-term memory. Later, the brain will allow us to recall or retrieve that image, feeling, or information so we can do something with it. This is what we call remembering.

Analysis Question

Take a few minutes to list ways you create memories on a daily basis. Do you think about how you make memories? Do you do anything that helps you keep track of your memories?

Short-term Memory

Short-term or active memory is made up of the information we are processing at any given time. Short-term memory involves information being captured at the moment as well as from information retrieved from our passive memory for doing complex mental tasks, such as thinking critically and drawing conclusions. But short-term memory is limited and suffers from the passing of time and lack of use. We begin to forget data within thirty seconds of not using it, and interruptions, such as phone calls or distractions, require us to rebuild the short term memory structure—to get “back on task.” To keep information in our memory, we must either use it or place it into our long-term memory (much like saving a document on your computer).

Working Memory

Working memory is a type of short-term memory, but we use it when we are actively performing a task. Working memory is more immediate, and reflects our ability to temporarily hold vital information for processing – such as dialing a new telephone number or recalling where you might have just placed your pen. This type of memory is also important for everyday reasoning and decision making.

In working memory, you have access to whatever information you have stored in your memory that helps you complete the task you are performing. For instance, when you begin to study an assignment, you certainly need to read the directions, but you must also remember that in class your professor reduced the number of questions from those included in the assignment package.  This was an oral addition to the written assignment. The change to the instructions is what you bring up in working memory when you complete the assignment.

Long-term Memory

Long-term memory is made up the information you know. How we save information to our long-term memory has a lot to do with our ability to retrieve it when we need it at a later date. Our mind “saves” information by creating a complex series of links to the data. The stronger the links, the easier it is to recall. You can strengthen these links by using the following strategies. You should note how closely they are tied to good listening and notetaking strategies.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUoJc0NPajQ


Tips for moving information from short-term to long-term memory

  • Start reviewing new material immediately: Remember that people typically forget a significant amount of new information not too long after learning it. As a student, you can benefit from starting to study new material right away. If you’re introduced to new concepts in class, for example, don’t wait to start reviewing your notes and doing the related reading assignments—the sooner the better.
  • Study frequently for shorter periods of time: Once information becomes a part of long-term memory, you’re more likely to remember it. If you want to improve the odds of recalling course material by the time of an exam (or a future class, say), try reviewing it a little bit every day. Building up your knowledge and recall this way can also help you avoid needing to “cram” and feeling overwhelmed by everything you’ve may have forgotten.
  • Use repetition: This strategy is linked to studying material frequently for shorter periods of time. You may not remember when or how you learned skills like riding a bike or tying your shoes. Mastery came with practice, and at some point the skills became second nature. Academic learning is no different: If you spend enough time with important course concepts and practice them often, you will know them in the same way you know how to ride a bike—almost without thinking about them.
  • Use visual imagery. Picture the concept vividly in your mind. Make those images big, bold, and colorful—even silly!
  • Break information down into manageable “chunks.”
  • Work from general information to the specific. People usually learn best when they get the big picture first, and then look at the details.
  • Eliminate distractions.
  • Test your memory often. Try to write down everything you know about a specific subject, from memory. Then go back and check your notes and textbook to see how you did.

Reflection Activity

Jennifer felt anxious about an upcoming exam. This would be her first test in a college class, and she wanted to do well. Jennifer took lots of notes during class and while reading the textbook. In preparation for the exam, she had tried to review all five textbook chapters along with all of her notes. The morning of the exam, Jennifer felt nervous and unprepared. After so much studying and review, why wasn’t she more confident? Jennifer’s situation shows that there really is such a thing as studying too much. Her mistake was in trying to master all of the course material. Whether you take one or more than one class, it’s simply impossible to retain every single particle of information you encounter in a textbook or lecture. And, instructors don’t generally give open-book exams or allow their students to preview the quizzes or tests ahead of time. So, how can you decide what to study and “know what to know”? The answer is to prioritize what you’re trying to learn and memorize, rather than trying to tackle all of it. Below are some strategies to help you do this.

  • Think about concepts rather than facts: From time to time, you’ll need to memorize cold, hard facts—like a list of specific steps of a routine or a vocabulary list in a theory class. Most of the time, instructional materials are developed keeping in mind that you are learning about the key concepts in a subject or course—i.e., how photosynthesis works, how to write a thesis statement, and so on. For example, Jennifer might have been more successful with her studying—and felt better about it—if she had focused on the “big ideas” discussed in class, as opposed to trying to memorize a long list of dates and facts.
  • Take cues from your instructor: Pay attention to what your instructor writes on the board or includes in study guides and handouts. Although these may be short—just a list of words and phrases, say—they are likely core concepts that you’ll want to focus on. Also, instructors tend to refer to important concepts repeatedly during class, and they may even tell you what’s important to know before an exam or other assessment.
  • Look for key terms: Textbooks will often put key terms in bold or italics. These terms and their definitions are usually important and can help you remember larger concepts.
  • Use summaries: Textbooks often have summaries or study guides at the end of each chapter. These summaries are a good way to check in and see whether you grasp the main elements of the reading. If no summary is available, try to write your own—you’ll learn much more by writing about what you read than by reading alone.



  • Describe strategies for deciding which course content to learn and retain


  • Describe several situations in which you struggled to learn and retain new material in a class. Was there a particular type of content that was more challenging compared with others?
  • Explain at least two strategies for identifying the main course content that you could use moving forward for studying.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsC9ZHi79jo


Obstacles to Remembering

If remembering things we need to know for exams or for learning new disciplines were easy, no one would have problems with it, but students face several significant obstacles to remembering, including a persistent lack of sleep and an unrealistic reliance on cramming. Life is busy and stressful for all students, so you have to keep practicing strategies to help you study and remember successfully, but you also must be mindful of obstacles to remembering.

  • Lack of sleep
  • Cramming a load of information into your short-term memory
  • Stress
  • Individual Needs / Developmental Differences

Key Takeaways

  • Working memory is like a temporary sticky note in the brain.
  • People who learn and think differently often struggle with working memory.
  • Short-term memory holds a limited amount of information that you process at one time, but it is temporary; long-term memory stores information by creating complex linkages that helps you recall important information at a later time.
  • Moving information from short-term to long-term memory takes deliberate action on your part.

Attributions and References

This chapter contains adaptations from

Baldwin, A. (2020). College Success. Provided by: Open Stax.
Book URL: Access for free at  https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/1-introduction
Section URL: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/6-1-memory
License: CC BY: Attribution


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Fundamentals for Success in College Copyright © 2022 by Priti Parikh, Centennial College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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