Memory and the Adult Learner – by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator

Today I want to talk about memory and how it impacts learning.

First, I have to confess that immersing myself in learning about memory for this month’s blog has been a selfish endeavor. For most of my young learning life, I never had to give one fig about memory because I was blessed with eidetic memory, or in layman’s terms, a photographic memory. One of my early memories was looking at 8 or 10 pages in my book before my parents made me shut off my light. Once I was lying there in the dark, I would then “read” what my memory had stored, and usually by the time I was done, I would be ready for sleep. Learning vocabulary, foreign language, anything in written format, was very simple. I was heavily involved in theatre, and learning lines was simply a matter of letting my brain take a picture of the script and then consulting those images. Of course, that meant I knew everybody’s lines and was an annoying know-it-all, but that seemed a small price to pay.

As I’ve grown older, this ability has faded quite a bit, and I’ve come late to the game of having to figure out how to remember things. The silver lining of this is that it has made me more empathetic to the memory issues of my students and more curious about how normal memory works. Add to that the fact that our adult students come to us with their learning behaviors, including those related to remembering new information, pretty well-established.

For those of you who aren’t research nerds like me, memory science really breaks down into three discernible chunks:

  1. Encoding
  2. Storage
  3. Retrieval

Encoding has to do with when and how the memory is initially made. There are more ways to encode memories than we yet understand, but I think it’s pretty crucial to figure out your own memory tricks—for instance, do you need to say new phone numbers out loud before you dial them so your ears can “hear” them and it’s not just your eyes telling you what to do? I do—this is called “acoustic” memory. I picture it like an audio file playing back after my eyes have moved on to their next task. I also associate this with knowing song lyrics once the song has started playing, even though you might not be able to think of them when the music is not in the background.

If you are someone who is highly visual and need to “see” something in order to be able to store away the picture of it in your memory, you are using your “visual” memory function. We can use this to recognize objects or discern patterns.

If you have to understand a concept thoroughly before you can remember it, you are accessing your “semantic” memory, which is what neuro-scientists call the type of memory that requires understanding before it will authorize storage of new material. Knowing how to drive, use a telephone, open your email, solve a particular type of problem—these are examples of semantic memory. Once upon a time, we did not understand how to do these things, but we eventually broke the tasks down into steps and learned how, thus transferring an episodic memory into long-term semantic memory. Now you’d be hard-pressed to go back and remember a time you did not understand this particular concept.

If you need to physically touch or take something apart and put it back together in order to store that knowledge, you are tapping into your “tactile” memory. I imagine that soldiers use this when they are learning how to deconstruct a weapon and put it back together quickly without having to think about each individual step. Tactile memory, also known as haptic memory, has to do with our senses—if you smell cinnamon, does it evoke a certain memory of baking with your mother? If you catch a whiff of a certain cologne or perfume, does it transport you through time when that was something important to you? If you hear a voice or a sound that is from your past, you may be able to recall that moment more vividly. A silly example of this would be that when I hear the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme song, I picture myself grading papers, snuggled in with a blanket around my legs, immersed in freshman compositions since I often had Buffy on in the background while I graded to keep me company.

These are the 4 basic methods of encoding memory:

  • Acoustic
  • Visual
  • Semantic
  • Tactile

Are you using all of them in your instruction? My French teacher, Mademoiselle Lursen, had us repeating vocabulary after her, standing up and sitting down when she used those verbs in French, touching the window when we learned about fenetres, holding up our pens when we learned the word stylo. The more you can consciously employ all of the types of memory in your teaching practices, the more likely it is that one of them will prove useful for your students. Early childhood teachers get this stuff right—they engage the whole body of their students for learning. When I conduct workshops on giving presentations, I make my participants stand up, stumble through tongue twisters, produce silly sounds to test their breath control, and demonstrate how to do effective adrenalin dumps to get rid of nerves. These activities are the ones they remember when I run into them at sporting events or the grocery store—because their whole body was engaged.


Once you have a memory, it is up to you to decide whether you wish to store it in your short-term memory bank or move it over to long-term storage. How you code this memory will determine that. Do you access it often? Have you put it next to related items so you will see it and use it regularly? If not, it may fade away pretty quickly. Have you built it onto existing memories, bridging new information over to the old? This is something we as teachers must consciously help our students do if we want them to leave with this new info. This is yet another reason why it’s important to know our students, to understand their goals, their challenges, so we can build bridges that make sense to them.

Storage is not wholly reliable, by the way. Our memories are as fallible as we are—we can remember something that did not happen the way we think it did. Our brains rewire, rewrite—our psyches change little details or omit them based on so many variables. Were we happy or sad? Hungry? Tired? Emotionally overwrought? Did we replay that experience over in our brains and wish for a different ending? Knowing that storage is imperfect is important for us to keep developing new ways to reach our students.


OK, so you made the memory, you filed it away in either STM or LTM, and now you need to bring it out of the closet and use it…for a test, for a project, for a relationship, for your life. How do you do that? Again, the neuroscientists give us that scientific answer: it depends.

It depends on how you stored it. Did you store it in the “school info” folder, or did you label it “life skills” or “important for my career goals”—the more associations you have with a piece of information, the more hashtags you put on it (to speak in total social media), the more likely it is you’ll be able to pull that memory out when you need it. Have you revisited the memory a few times so you know it’s there, you know what it looks like, or did you tuck it away and let it gather the brain’s equivalent of dust?

Now we have this information about how memory works, and believe me, I know this is a rudimentary outline of that, how can we use it to inform our teaching?

Create projects or activities in your classroom that use ALL of the various encoding mechanisms. Sights, sounds, tactile, and semantic memories are all welcome. Key terms should go on the wall or home page, right answers could get a bell tone or a “huzzah” from the class, anything that can be touched or felt should be brought in for the group to experience. Develop a signal in your class that students can give when they understand something—or when they don’t so you can go back and try another tack to get them on board. Memory experts tell us that frequent small tests vs. infrequent periodic tests actually encourage mastery, and learning and recalling information over a prolonged period of time (rather than cramming) also improves outcomes. So, instead of introducing a topic and covering it all in one unit or one lecture, stretch it out and keep building on it, adding details, reframing with new information.

Remember, we are complicated organisms with multiple intelligences who come together with all of our various coping mechanisms and learning styles. It is up to us to employ all of our might to book a permanent hotel stay in the memories of our students.

For more resources on memory and cognition, see those at the end of the article.

Additional Resources:

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. 2014. Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gobet, F., Lane, P.C., Croker, S., Cheng, P.C., Jones, G., Oliver, I. & Pine, J.M. 2001. Chunking mechanisms in human learning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 5(6):236-243.

Greenberg, Cheryl & Sandra M. Powers (1987) MEMORY IMPROVEMENT AMONG ADULT LEARNERS, Educational Gerontology, 13:3, 263-280, DOI: 10.1080/0380127870130306

Kaufman, S.B. 2011. Intelligence and the cognitive unconscious. In The Cambridge handbook of intelligence. R.J. Sternberg & S.B. Kaufman, Eds. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Osman, M. 2004. An evaluation of dual-process theories of reasoning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 11(6):988-1010.

Roediger, H.L. & McDermott, K.B. 1995. Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 21(4):803.

Schaefer, P.2015. Why Google has forever changed the forgetting curve at work.

Weissenborn, R. & Duka, T. 2000. State-dependent effects of alcohol on explicit memory: The role of semantic associations. Psychopharmacology. 149(1):98-106.