Learn How To Improve Your Memory Retrieval

Learn How To Improve Your Memory Retrieval

How many times have you been in a conversation and you’ve tried so hard to remember an important fact, but you can’t seem to recall the information you’re searching for. Even worse, sat in a testing location with the correct answer just on the tip of your tongue, but for whatever reason you can’t bring up in your mind the correct answer? If you’re anything like me, the answer to these questions is too many times to count. Any time you successfully bring up a memory or can recall a correct answer, you’re practicing memory retrieval. Like all things in life, some of us are better at retrieval than others. The good news is that all of us can improve our memory retrieval by understanding how we can first improve the encoding of information upon learning it.

Encoding is simply just the process of moving information from our short-term, or working memory, into our long-term memory. Once information is properly encoded, there are key strategies we can employ to move information from our long-term memory back into working memory. Let’s begin by looking at strategies that can improve our encoding process.

Encoding Strategies

Again, encoding is the act of moving information from the temporary store in our working memory to the permanent storage in our long-term memory. Working memory has a limited capacity as it can only hold 7-9 (plus or minus 2) pieces of information at a time. If you want to process more than seven pieces of information, the information will need to be structured and presented in a manner that is conducive to how our brains process and store incoming stimuli. This brings us to our first encoding strategy which is segmentation.


Segmentation, also sometimes known as chunking, is the act of breaking information down into manageable segments and delivering them in short bursts. Information needs to be presented in a manner that links the new information to material already known by the learner. It is important with segmentation that similar information be grouped together. For instance, if I am training a group of new HR generalists about the company's time-off procedure, I would not want to interject the company's hiring processes mid lesson. I would instead break the time-off procedures into component parts and teach them in a sequential and easily digestible burst. Typically learners cannot maintain active attention for any more than 20 minutes without a break in the learning activity or modality. We need to be mindful of this limited capacity as we’re designing lessons for memory encoding.

Mnemonic Devices

Another commonly used encoding strategy is mnemonic devices. These are memory aides that help us link what we’re trying to learn to already existing information. One of the most practiced mnemonic devices is imagery. Utilizing imagery to remember information is a commonly used technique that has been around for thousands of years. The interesting thing about imagery is that the crazier the image, the better the encoding of it. Say for instance you’re trying to recall that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. To remember this you could imagine a dust mite flexing its muscles. I know that it is weird and somewhat gross. However, it's imagery like this that will enhance and strengthen long-term connections.

Peg Word System And Method Of Loci

Two other commonly used mnemonic devices are the peg word system and the method of loci. Both devices are excellent if you need to remember something in a particular order or sequence. The peg word system uses verbal anchors to make associations between two concrete objectives. It utilizes a rhyming and numbering system to establish the connections. For instance, if the first item you need to remember is mitochondria. You would take the number one and rhyme it with the word bun. You would then imagine the mitochondria sitting inside the bun. This method again seems a bit strange, but it actually works. In fact, I bet you won’t forget about the mitochondria sitting inside the bun.

The second device is the method of loci. It is similar to the peg word system, but it utilizes locations as opposed to verbal anchors. Take your commute to work for instance. You can take locations along the route and tie the information you’re trying to learn to those locations. Say you need to remember a speech for an upcoming company meeting. You can remember the topics for your speech by connecting them to various locations along your commute. So if the first landmark you pass by on your way to work is a supermarket, you can think of the first item within your speech to the image of the supermarket. So on and so forth. These mnemonic devices seem a bit unorthodox, but have been verified through numerous studies and meta-analysis.

Self-Referencing And The Teaching Effect

The final two encoding strategies that I will cover are self-referencing and the teaching effect. Self-referencing is relating information to the self during the process of encoding. Basically, it is thinking about information in the first-person point of view and how it directly relates to you. For instance, if I need to remember that the mitochondria is the energy source of the cell, I can think about how tired and lethargic I would be if I didn’t have any mitochondria within my cells. The teaching effect is basically structuring newly learned information as if you needed to teach it to someone else. You can even go a step further and actually teach the information which helps with the retrieval of that information at a later time.

Retrieval Strategies

Any time you successfully call up a memory you’re practicing an act of retrieval. Successful retrieval depends on your ability to recognize and utilize the cues around you during the encoding process and access them during the retrieval process.


Priming is an example of one of these cues. Priming is the activation of specific associations within your memory even though you may not be aware of them. For instance, if you read a story about bananas and I asked you to think of a bird, you would probably envision a yellow bird. The reason is because your recent memory of bananas would prime your brain to think of other things that take on similar colors or characteristics.


Another retrieval cue is context. Basically, the environment in which you encode information is best retrieved in the same context or environment that you learned it within. For instance, if you’re learning to repair a car engine, it is best to learn the information in the same environment that it will be applied within. If I am going to fix an engine in a garage, I should try to learn it within the same or similar garage environment. If this isn’t possible, which is the case for many learning activities, we can study and apply the skills in multiple locations. This will help develop multiple cues that can be applied in new locations even if you never applied it within that location before.

State-Dependent Memory

State-dependent memory in another popular retrieval cue. Your state can refer to your mood or any other any physical state you’re in at the moment of encoding. For instance, if you learn information in a happy state (mood), your ability to retrieve information increases the next time you’re in this state. Other states that have been studied are states of tiredness and after drinking caffeinated beverages. Sure enough, we remember things better the next time we’re in these physical states. So make sure to drinks lots of coffee when you study and take a big test!