Long-Term Memory: A User’s Guide

When you’re designing learning experiences, long-term memory is your ultimate destination. It’s the promised land—where you want newly learned content and skills to find their place.

So shouldn’t we be more familiar with the characteristics and dynamics of long-term memory? I think we need a user’s guide.

The Basics

    1. Long-term memory (LTM) is a hypothetical construct. Although you won’t find a matching structure in the brain, it’s a helpful mental model to think of long-term memory as a dynamic yet permanent store of information.
    2. Rather than being a distinct structure, researchers have found regions in every lobe of the brain that store and retrieve memories of facts and events.
    3. We are usually referring to long-term memory when we talk about remembering something.
    4. Long-term memory encompasses three operations: encoding, storage and retrieval. These are all examined below.
    5. Long-term memory is more than a knowledge archive. It provides the background information that we need to understand the world by bringing relevant knowledge into working memory as it’s needed.

Types of Long-term Memory

    1. Cognitive psychologists think of long-term memory as divided into two broad types. Explicit memory, also called declarative memory, consists of memories we are aware of or conscious memories. Implicit memory, also called nondeclarative memory, is unconscious. It consists of memories used without our conscious awareness.
    2. Explicit memory (the conscious kind) consists of semantic memory—memory for facts and knowledge about the world—and episodic memory—memory for personal experiences.
    3. There are several types of implicit memories (the unconscious kind). Most relevant to training is procedural memory. This is our memory for doing things that usually require action. When use a mouse on the computer or dial a phone number we are not consciously aware of the memories that enable us to perform these skills.

Capacity, Duration and Speed

    1. It is unknown how long information in long-term memory can last. It could be stored indefinitely. Think of the older people you know who are experts in their field or who remember details of their childhood. Some information appears to last forever.
    2. It is equally unknown how much information long-term memory can store. In practical terms, think of long-term memory as having an infinite capacity because it never gets used up.
    3. The time it takes to access information in long-term memory is thought to be 200 milliseconds or .200 second.


    1. When information is transformed and “written” to long-term memory it is known as encoding. There are varied  strategies that instructional designers and learners can use to improve encoding. See the Strategies below.
    2. Information in long-term memory is most likely stored in network-type structures called schemas. Schemas are an efficient way to organize interrelated concepts in a meaningful way.
    3. When we learn or experience something new and connect it with previously stored information, the process is known as assimilation.
    4. Sometimes we learn something new or have experiences that don’t fit in with existing schemas. We then alter existing schemas or create new ones in a process is known as accommodation.


    1. Retrieval is the process of activating and using information from long-term memory. Retrieval is facilitated through retrieval cues, which is any stimulus that helps us recall information from long-term memory.
    2. Some cognitive psychologists think that not being able to remember something is more a failure of not having the right cue than the fact that the information is not present in long-term memory.
    3. Recognition memory is almost always better than recall. Recognition involves determining whether you’ve seen something before. With recall, you have to generate the remembered information.
    4. Memories are more than a simple construction of recalled information. Rather, what we recall is influenced by attitudes, beliefs and previous experiences. So memories are reconstructed events.

Strategies to Enhance Encoding and Retrieval

  1. The transfer of information into long-term memory is facilitated by elaboration or elaborative rehearsal. Some elaboration strategies include: thinking of related ideas or examples of the content, mentally tying the information together or creating a mental image of the information. Course designers and instructors can encourage this behavior.
  2. Most likely, retrieval is improved when the type of elaboration used for encoding matches the type of task required for retrieval.
  3. Making purposeful connections and associations with prior knowledge improves transfer to long-term memory. Many designers and instructors use this strategy and it is one of Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction.
  4. Organizing information, such as categorizing it into subsets, can facilitate retrieval. Many people do this spontaneously and instructional designers spend a great deal of effort at organizing information into meaningful chunks.
  5. Retention is improved through distributed practice across multiple study sessions rather than concentrating the same amount of practice into one session. This allows information to be consolidated into memory over time.
  6. People can recall facts better when the facts are associated with a personal experience. Pairing semantic memories with episodic memories facilitates learning.


  1. Gagne, Ellen. The Cognitive Psychology of School Learning. Allyn & Bacon, 1997
  2. Goldstein, E. Bruce. Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research and Everyday Experience. Wadsworth Publishing, 2010.
  3. Sternberg, Robert J. Cognitive Psychology. Wadsworth Publishing, 2011.
  4. Smith, Patricia L. and Tillman J Ragan. Instructional Design, Wiley, 2004.

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  1. KWK says

    Thank you Ms. Malamed for this LTM user guide. I am just beginning a formal education in Instructional Design & Technology and this was a great overview to why we need to understand what long term memory is. There are so many ideas and strategies to provide effective learning that it is exciting and confusing all at the same time. The goal: finding a way to create and present meaningful information so it will find a final resting place in a person’s long term memory. When you have designed courses in the past how have you encouraged the elaboration process? Are there specific techniques you have that help to pair the semantic memories with the episodic memories the learner may have?
    Thanks again for this information. I look forward to following your blog.

  2. Heather Wagner says

    Ms. Malamed,

    I recently started my journey in obtaining my Masters degree in Instructional Design and Technology. While I have known there are blogs out there I have recently started following blogs to help further my knowledge of IDT.

    This week in our class we are focusing on learning processing and that “all learning involves forming associations between stimuli and responses” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.49). Your “User’s Guide to Long Term Memory” has helped me to understand this better. Our reading this week showed that “LTM depends on frequency and contiguity” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.68). Personally, for me, “the more often that a fact, event, or idea is encountered, the stronger is its representation in memory” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.68). Whether it’s auditory or visual the more contact I have with the information the more likely I am to be able to remember it for the long term.

    Until now I did not realize there were so many different types of memory. Along with short-term and long-term memory there are also episodic, semantic, declarative and procedural memories which we reviewed this week. Episodic memory includes information that is personal that an individual can relate to a specific time and place. A good example of episodic memory is me remembering exactly what happened Easter of 2007 because I had to put my dog of 19 years to sleep that same weekend. Semantic memory “involves general information and concepts available in the environment and not tied to a particular context” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.68) Semantic memory is represented best by the specific facts learned, for example learning the words to the “Pledge of Allegiance”. Procedural memory is memory used for learning a new language such as Italian. The best way to learn is constant repetition. And finally there is declarative memory which “involves remembering new events and experiences” (Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.69).

    Up until know I feel I have been naïve in regards to memory. I though that memory was just memories and did not realize that there was so many different categorizations for memories. Understanding these different types of memory will assist in the encoding process and improve “memory because items are linked to one another systematically” Ormrod, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p.70).

    I’m looking forward to more great articles in the future!


    Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Learning theories and instruction (Laureate custom edition). New York: Pearson.

  3. Neisha says

    Hi Connie, 

    You have proven to be a  reliable and informative source for many including myself. I’m a student who’s new to Instructional Design. I find your Strategies to Enhance Encoding and Retrieval informative. Particularly #24, distributing practice across multiple sessions to improve retention. 

    Recently, I made a conscious effort to try to manage my time better by using the Pomodoro technique.  It was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s and the practice suggests that tasks are worked on in 25 minute segments with short breaks in between each segment and then a longer break after four consecutive 25 minute segments.

    I used this approach to prepare for a self study exam and found it to be quite effective. Essentially, it’s the same approach by a different name. :)  I will be sure to consciously incorporate the other strategies in my everyday activities. 

  4. Robert Bohlen says

    One technique I would add to enhance retention would be to purposely design emotion into our learning experiences.

    Whole-brain learning or Brain-based learning theories suggest that learning and retention are enhanced when some form of emotion is present, similar to Heather’s example above when she had to put her dog to sleep.

    Adding emotion like humor, surprise, sad or touching stories can all help drive learning home and stamp it more firmly into the brain.

    When I think back to the most impactful conferences and workshops I’ve attended, I remember times that the presenter told emotion-laden stories or was able to make me FEEL something. Funny how it works but somehow the emotion and the cognition together engage more of the brain and make the imprint deeper.

  5. Jeff Dalto says

    Hi Connie (and/or those who have written here already),

    I am curious if anyone knows of a good single source of information that provides tips about what instructional designers can do to help facilitate the movement of information from the sensory memory to the working memory.

    I know there are multiple ideas and basic concepts, including stuff like “obey the basic rules of visual design” and “keep things simple for instructional value,” but I wondered if anyone knows of a single book or websites that compiles a bunch of useful tips? There’s a lot of focus on how to aid encoding and how to aid retrieval, and that emphasis is logical, but I can’t seem to find this earlier, also important information in a single source.

  6. Connie Malamed says

    That’s a great question, Jeff. In my book, Visual Language For Designers, I have a specific chapter that might help. The chapter I’m thinking of is called “Organize For Perception” and it discusses research related to aid quick perception and drawing attention through attributes that pop-out and through grouping. Now, you may find the Gestalt Laws of Perception helpful too, perhaps, though they might not frame it in the same way. The chapter on Reducing Realism might possibly help too.


  7. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Joseph,
    Thanks for sharing my articles. I should let you know that I do not have a PhD and I’m not a Dr. — though it does have a nice ring to it. I have a Masters Degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

  8. Cooki Medeiros says

    Hi Connie,

    Thank you for sharing and outlining a user’s guide for long-term memory, in my profession as an instructional designer it is important that we gain a basic understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the brain that can propel us to think differently about how people learn. Instructional designers and educators need to figure out how to encode or consolidate information so learners can process transferring information from STM to LTM.
    Moving information into LTM primarily takes place through a process called elaboration. When I think about teaching learners, I need to know what they already know so that they can relate the new information to their existing knowledge. This is elaboration. While teachers can do some of that for learners, elaboration is an active process. The learner must be actively engaged with the material that is to be learned (Orey, 2001).
    As instructional designers, we can design learning programs to make learning relevant and meaningful enough for the learner to make the important transfer of information to LTM. On the job, my project team of instructional designers chunk information when designing learning programs. We found from experience that overloading the content was overloading the learner’s brain in retaining the information. Chunking enhances the STM transfer to LTM. Remember, STMs capacity is limited to about six to nine items. Chunking allows the brain to group certain items together that can help our learners remember and improve their learning process.

    Orey, M. (2001). Information processing. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/index.php?title=Information_processing


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