Make it Stick: How Intentional Usage of Encoding Strategies by Students and Instructors Can Improve Learning and Memory

Feifan Zou and Karina Agadzhanyan

Picture this: you walk into your classroom and sit down in nervous anticipation for the upcoming Biology midterm. After what feels like forever, the thin pile of sheets finally gets passed to you. You sit down, take a deep breath, and open the test booklet. Right off the bat, the first question catches you off guard as it asks for a concept related to cell growth that you can’t remember. At that moment, wouldn’t you wish you had a better memory for all the important things you’re trying to remember?

To combat this memory limitation, many individuals have come up with different mnemonics or techniques that can be used as memory aids for expanding the ability to memorize greater chunks of information through the arduous practice of those mnemonics over time. For example, the method of loci, or memory palace, is a popular mnemonic device that prompts an individual to pair the items to be remembered to different components of a familiar location and to use the visualized associations to improve recall (Yesavage & Rose, 1984). While a gradual boost to memory capacity through consistent training is certainly a possible solution, another important way to effectively strengthen long-term memory, the storage of information over a long period of time, may depend simply on how one interacts with material upon learning (Benjamin, 2007).      

Before elaborating further on how one’s interaction with to-be-learned information can affect memory, a quick overview of the memory process itself would reveal three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Whereas storage and retrieval refer to the consolidation of information over time and the access to that stored information, which happens after one stops interacting with it, encoding refers to the initial learning and interaction with the sensory input (McDermott & Roediger, 2021). The focus of the following article is the encoding stage, specifically, how effective encoding strategies and techniques could improve memory for the to-be-learned material. Since unpacking what it takes for a learner to learn effectively usually involves both the learners’ and the information presenters’ perspectives, the following article provides practical strategies that could be utilized by each group to promote better learning outcomes.

Effective Encoding Strategies for Learners

            There are several strategies that learners can actively utilize to learn information in a way that makes it last longer, one of which derives from the idea of the depth of processing (DOP). First proposed by Craik and Lockhart in 1972, the idea states that the more one interacts with the to-be-learned information on a semantic level (which concerns more with its meaning rather than surface-level features), the better the information is processed, which then leads to deeper and more efficient encoding and storage of that information. For example, when studying a list of words, one may be asked whether a word fits in a certain sentence (deep processing) or whether a word is capitalized (shallow processing). In general, it is more likely for one to remember the words presented with the former question than those presented with the latter question because word-fitting requires the learner to interact with the material on a deeper level of encoding. To employ depth of processing, learners must engage in active analyses of the meaning of the information, linking it into or relating it to the pre-existing network of semantic associations to ensure better memory outcomes.

Besides incorporating depth of learning into learning, one can also benefit from strategies that engage the generation effect, which states that information is better remembered when one generates it independently rather than passively receives it (Slamecka & Graf, 1978). Learning strategies, such as generating notes instead of passively reading information or listening during a lecture or presentation, is one example of how one can implement the generation effect. Although research has no distinct answer to why this happens, it is likely that by summarizing the information using their own words, learners can process the material at a deeper level, resulting in better retention.

Moreover, students could benefit from the spacing effect, which states that distributed practice yields better long-term learning outcomes than massed practice (see Bjork, 1970 for a review; Melton, 1970). By allowing some time to pass between study sessions, students may spend more cognitive resources to retrieve the information that they have learned from the previous sessions. This effort may be instrumental in helping learners to deepen their understanding and encode any new knowledge due to the forgetting that can happen in between the study sessions, which is conducive to more lasting memory over time (Brown et al., 2014). Therefore, it is beneficial for students to dedicate more time to studying for an exam by spreading their study periods over multiple sessions instead of cramming at the last minute.

Another way to achieve better learning of information stems from the self-reference effect (Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977; see Symons & Johnson, 1997 for a review), which describes the phenomenon that people experience a boost in their memory for things that they were able to relate to themselves. To utilize the power of self-reference, learners can start by asking themselves how the to-be-learned information connects to them personally. For example, they might ask themselves the following questions:

What do I think of the ideas conveyed by this author?

Have I experienced similar concepts entailed by this psychology theory?

Where can I apply this information?

Efforts like this can help one develop a habit to always seek connections between oneself and new information, which will allow the information to be remembered more effectively.

Research has also shown that congruent encoding and retrieval environments could lead to better memory, a notion known as encoding specificity. To illustrate, Godden and Baddeley (1975) had participants study lists of words either on land or underwater and later tested their memory in both environments. The results revealed that performance was best when both the study and test environments were congruent, indicating that memory is often context-dependent. Therefore, learners can benefit from studying in the same environment where they are expected to be tested by using the study context as a helpful retrieval cue.

Interestingly, a seemingly contradictory theory called encoding variability proposed that memory is enhanced when one encodes information from multiple contexts by studying in different environments. Encoding variability benefits could be attributed to learners encoding more information about the study environments, which could later be utilized as retrieval cues. Although some research has shown that encoding variability can benefit memory (Young & Bellezza, 1982), others failed to support the idea (Maki & Hasher, 1975; Postman & Knecht, 1983). Hence, while findings from studies have provided relatively consistent support for the idea of encoding specificity or the practice of studying in the same context as the test environment, it may be up to individual discretion to decide if incorporating encoding variability is a useful strategy to improve memory.

In sum, learners can use various techniques or strategies to ensure efficient and effective encoding, which ranges from making a mental effort to process information in terms of its meaning to independently writing down the presented information and exploring its relevance. Moreover, studying in the test environment and spacing out study time is also known to boost one’s memory. Although these strategies do require conscious mental efforts and perhaps a change of old habits for learners, unlike many mnemonic devices, they do not require weeks or even months of vigorous training and can be readily implemented by most learners to make a visible impact on study outcomes.

Effective Encoding Strategies for Information-Presenters

While learners are typically perceived to be the ones taking on the main responsibility for improving their encoding strategies and memory outcomes, there are also a variety of ways by which information presenters, such as teachers and instructors, can make what they teach “stick” better for their audience. In a traditional classroom setting, due to the need to present an extensive amount of information, teachers often present information in a sequential manner by using presentation slides. However, studies have shown that presenting the to-be-learned information sequentially resulted in learners showing worse memory and less optimal study strategy use than learners who received the information simultaneously (Middlebrooks & Castel, 2018). Thus, the presentation format plays a role in the effectiveness of the study schedules later developed by learners. To help mitigate the potential detriments of the sequential presentation format when lecturing with slides, it may be beneficial for instructors to promote the generation effect in their students by teaching effective self-questioning techniques aiming to make students study effectively after each lecture (King, 1989). In addition, information presenters can organize the material into certain categories as presenting information in an organized and structured manner can help learners improve recall (Bower et al., 1969). It is likely so because organization format encourages the encoding of how the information relates to each other (Klein & Khilstrom, 1986), which is a type of relational processing that allows for the encoding of a category or concept that ties information together, which can serve as an additional memory cue (Barsalou, 1983).

In addition, information presenters can exploit the semantic clustering effect, which describes the tendency to recall information that is semantically related to each other in a successive, “clustering” manner to improve students’ memory (Bousfield, 1953; Romney et al., 1993). Because learners can generally succeed in recalling information that is associated with or is related to each other in some way, the recall of information from a given category (whether arbitrary or relatively universal) can thus lead to the recall of other related information. Therefore, it is especially crucial for information presenters to effectively employ categorical organization in their presentation since by doing so, they can ensure that students create clear connections between concepts during the encoding process and maximize the benefits of the semantic clustering effect.

Another simple strategy that teachers can use to benefit students’ memory performance is to give students instructions regarding the test format, such as whether it is multiple-choice, true-or-false, fill-in-the-blank, or short answer, or all at once. This practice derives its support from the potential benefits of test expectancy, which refers to the knowledge of the nature of an upcoming test (Finley & Benjamin, 2012; Middlebrooks et al., 2017). For instance, when individuals have a clear expectation of how they will be tested on later and in what format, they tend to study in a manner that caters to the demands of the test, whereas if a mismatch happens between their expectation and the actual test format, their performance could suffer. Thus, awareness of the test format during the study phase can lead to more effective learning.

In short, while information presenters are not directly responsible for their students’ learning process, they can surely facilitate the process. Specifically, they can teach self-questioning techniques and give meaningful structure to the information they present to combat the potentially negative impact of sequential presentation format and maximize the beneficial effects of semantic clustering for their learners. Additionally, teachers can benefit their students’ learning simply by giving a clear description of the test format for the students to encode information accordingly.

Conclusion and Takeaways

In conclusion, it is important to recognize that there are a variety of encoding strategies that one can employ to improve memory. While some may require consistent practice, such as mastering a certain mnemonic device like the method of loci, others may require mindful maneuvering of the information during learning, such as engaging in deep processing, independently generating the learned information, or referencing it to oneself. Instructors and teachers can also impact the way students learn by changing their presentation manner to promote simultaneous and clustered learning and providing information about the test format prior to the exam day. To summarize, the more information can be presented or digested in a way that allows for more meaningful processing by the learner, the better one’s memory for that information.




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