3 Techniques To Improve Memory Retention: An Elephant Never Forgets, But Trainees Do

3 Techniques To Improve Memory Retention: An Elephant Never Forgets, But Trainees Do
Summary: As an Instructional Designer, I build in ways to help the learners in my courses improve their memory retention of core concepts. Otherwise, I know that if they’re anything like me, most of them will forget older concepts as we move through the material.

How To Help Learners To Improve Their Memory Retention   

I have to admit that I have poor memory retention. Luckily, I’m a law-abiding citizen, otherwise I would be in real trouble:


Officer: Where were you on Thursday, April 7th, 2016 at 8pm?
Me: I have no idea.
Officer: But that was only 2 hours ago.
Me: I still have no idea.

How can an Instructional Designer help learners remember materials as they flow through a course? 3 techniques that have worked for me to increase my memory retention are connecting topics to each other, constantly reviewing previous concepts, and assessing often.

1. Make Connections

Whether the course is offered in a traditional classroom or through an online platform, course material is often divided into segmented chunks. In a traditional course, this usually looks like a lecture, whereas an eLearning course is typically divided into modules. In both settings, the learning is isolated by topic.  stack of papers

As human beings, we like to categorize things into neat little boxes to help keep them organized in our minds. And this is probably the origin of the one concept per lecture or one concept per module format. However, it’s much easier to remember something when it’s actually connected to something else.

Recognizing these kinds of connections and building in ways for learners to start making them on their own will help you design courses that maximize learning. As one example, suppose you’re developing a corporate training course that’s intended to help management change a set of behaviors. You could teach these behaviors in isolation or you develop a common thread to connect them all, improving the chance that your learners will remember the behaviors.

One way that you could accomplish this would be to create a “course character” who could act out the different behaviors through a set of videos. Another way that you could accomplish this would be to create a physical location that would connect the behaviors. In addition to creating activities that build on the connections that you see as an Instructional Designer, structure activities in ways that allow participants to reflect on the connections they see—and perhaps share these with other learners in the course.

2. An 80/20 Model Of Learning

It's Monday

Monday is a tough day to teach. Facts are forgotten, concepts are no longer understood, and skills are unlearned; two days is a long time to wait before re-enforcing a new concept. A good Instructional Designer recognizes this fact and makes reviewing an integral part of the learning process. One method to achieve this is what I call an “80/20 Model of Learning”. What this means is that 80% of the time we teach something new, while 20% of the time we review previously seen concepts.

In a traditional course, the 80/20 split can and should occur on a daily basis. In an eLearning course, it’s a bit tougher, because everyone wants the course modules to be clean and tidy: Module 1 teaches Concept A and Module 2 teaches Concept B, without any sort of overlap. However, by incorporating a model that includes review of the previous material, you’re increasing your learner’s chances of success.

Another approach that one could take in an eLearning setting would be to create sequential modules that are each complemented by very short review units that provide a summary of what was just learned and how these concepts connect to the previous course concepts. These kinds of review modules could easily be integrated into whatever Learning Management System you’re using.

3. Assess More, Not Less

When we think about “assessment”, we tend to think of things like quizzes and exams. Most often, we view these kinds of activities as ways of providing information to the instructor. Whether in a traditional classroom or an eLearning setting, a quiz or an exam gives the instructor information about the learner’s progress with the material. Learners, in contrast, are primarily concerned with whether or not they’ll get credit for whatever it is they’re supposed to be learning.


Unfortunately, the topic of assessment often has negative associations. We’ve all been in that situation of feeling test anxiety: The clammy hands and nervous stomach, along with fear of the potential negative outcome of an exam. Done well, assessments can actually help learners remember the course material and reduce learner anxiety. Instead of thinking of quizzes and exams as providing a one-way flow of information, assessments can and should be an important part of the feedback loop between learners and instructors. The trick is to lower the stakes for each particular assessment and to incorporate multiple assessments as part of the course design. In addition, short assessments should provide learners with feedback on how well they understand course concepts and give them tools to improve their understanding of topics they’re less familiar with.

How can this be achieved? In a traditional classroom setting, the assessment doesn’t need to “look” like an exam. The instructor can present a concept, then after only a few minutes, the students can work out some problems during the lecture. Students check their understanding of the information presented by the instructor and have the opportunity to fill in gaps, in real time.

This takes a lot of the pressure off of each individual assessment, and provides a way for learners to immediately apply what they’ve learned. In addition, it forces them to actively recall new concepts, which will strengthen their developing memory and understanding of the course material.

Integrating assessments as a tool to aid a learner’s memory can also be a natural part of the Instructional Design in an eLearning course. Learning modules can have short quizzes integrated into the process, which are automatically scored but don’t count towards the final grade. With the online component, students who provide incorrect responses can be given links to the original material. This enables the learner to re-visit the material, improving the chance that the learner will remember the material the next time that they see it. If you do this in combination with the 80/20 model mentioned above, you help the participants in your courses integrate the new material with previous concepts.

By asking participants to recall information at various points in a course, instructors can help learners do a better job of retaining key course concepts and reduce anxiety about receiving credit for any one part of a course.

Further Thoughts? 

As an Instructional Designer, what memory tools do you provide when creating a traditional course? What techniques do you use in the eLearning environment to increase your learners’ memory retention? Please share your thoughts below.