Memory: knowing how it works to enhance it (Part 2)

In the previous article we have talked about short-term memory, describing how it works and which enhancement strategies can be implemented to take the most of it. In this article you will learn all about long-term memory and how to enhance it.



Long-term memory can be thought as a dynamic yet permanent store of information, activated when we talk about remembering something. To access this information requires about 200 milliseconds, which means you recognize something you know way before being able to realize that you already know it.

But how long does “long-term” means? A piece of information stored in the long-term memory will be there for indefinitely long time, even if you are not aware is there. This is due to the way memory works, which encompasses two main operations: encoding and retrieval.

Let’s start saying that our brain stores information through structures called schemas, namely some sort of network which connects interrelated concepts to each others. You know what the sea is, but when you think about the sea, you will also think about fishes and boats. When we learn or experience something new, then, we already have all our schemas and we can either attach this new piece of information to them (assimilation) or create new ones (accomodation).

But why sometimes we can’t remember something we know? The retrieval process thrives on cues: to activate and use information from the long-term memory, we need stimuli which help recalling stored contents. This means that, without the right cue, we could not be able to access information, even if it is indeed stored in our long-term memory.



Enhancement strategies that are applicable to long-term memory focus on improving retention, namely easing the long-term storage of information which enter into short-term memory.

Do you remember the network-type structure? In our brain, one hundred trillions of neurons are connected to about one thousands “neighbors” each, by impulse signals called synapses. These connections become stronger in relation to how frequent these signals are, therefore it becomes essential to enhance this process.

There are many ways to do so, starting from distributing practice across multiple study sessions: this allows repeated information to be consolidated into memory over time, especially when breaking it into bite-sized piece of knowledge and switching up the formats it is delivered in. Learning gradually and using multiple senses, in fact, help to strengthen neural networks, hence reinforcing the trace of a memory and making more likely for it to be retrieved.



Once you have affected the way learners acquire information, the following step is to let them create meaningful connections between information stored in the long-term memory and real-world situations.

If it’s true that we mostly remember what we find useful and, more importantly, what we have the right cues to access, the use of scenarios and simulations leads learners to link stored information to practical applications, hence facilitating future retrieval.

This is a good example of enactment of knowledge, but it is not the only one possible: a number of active retrieval strategies can help learners to elaborate information and be actively involved into the lesson, reducing the risk of memory decay. If you think about what we’ve said about the brain, it is easy to understand how tasks like thinking of related ideas or examples, mentally tying contents together or creating a mental image of the information can all help establish a piece of knowledge in long-term memory. At the same time, these strategies help creating cues that act like a bridge from memories to the real world, making them meaningful and easier to retrieve when needed.  

But how can we use this information about how memory works to build more effective training courses? Let’s find out in the next article


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