Memory Research


Types of memory and their distinguishing qualities

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … retained information
  • Knowing is … rehearsing information
  • Learner is … dynamic memory system (sensory, cranial, individual, social, and cultural)
  • Learning is … elaborating memories
  • Teaching is … N/A




Often used as a synonym to “learning,” memory is more specific and applies to the ability to recall something learned after a period of time. Memory Research thus looks at multiple memory systems – that vary according to the type of memory, the location of the memory, the extent of conscious control, the manner of maintenance, the span of preservation, and the role in learning. Some relevant categories on the level of the individual include the following:
  • Sensory Memory – Lingering image/tone/feel after a perception happens. Generally lasts less than a second, cannot be controlled consciously, and cannot be altered with practice.
  • Short-Term Memory – Constrained immediate recall, typically of 7±2 items. Endures for up to a minute without rehearsal, provided there’s no interference. Can be improved modestly with practice, and significantly with mnemonic strategies.
  • Long-Term Memory – Extensive (limits are immeasurable) and enduring (potentially an entire life span). Preservation involves rehearsal, which often entails significant revision – especially over many repetitions. There are two types:
    • Implicit Memory– invoked unconsciously, typically manifest in gestures, skilled action, and habits of interpretation. There are several subcategories, among which are:
      • Procedural Memory – evident in skilled performance
      • Muscle Memory (Motor Learning) – type of Procedural Memory, emerging from repeating a motion over time. A Muscle Memory can be performed smoothly and accurately with minimal or no conscious effort.
      • Priming – evident in immediate preferential (often biased and/or visceral) responses
      • Associational – evident in intuitions and habits of interpretation
    • Explicit Memory(or Declarative Memory) – the conscious recollection of facts, concepts, and past experiences. There are two types:
      • Episodic Memory – retention of specific personal experiences
      • Semantic Memory – retention of facts and concept
Humans also use Collective Memory, relying on one another and their material worlds to retain memories and maintain collective social identities. Some examples of these Collective Memory include the following:
    • Social Memory – The collected knowledge and shared identifications of circles of friends, teams, organizations, professions, and other social collectives is typically distributed among members – so the social system is the unit of memory.
    • Cultural Memory – Most human knowledge is actually left out in the world. Two major means of preserving this knowledge are the following:
      • Activities – Language, mythologies, ethics, customs, and so on are all means of preserving knowledge. Each can be seen as a vast repository of accumulated insight and wisdom.
      • Artefacts – The most familiar external memory systems involve writing and electronic data storage, but almost all human-made artefacts serve or contribute to a memory function.
The above typology of separate stages of personal memory is not universally embraced. A prominent alternative perspective is:
  • Levels of Processing (F. Craik, R. Lockhart, 1970s) – Rather than distinguishing types of memory in terms of stages, durations, and capacities, Levels of Processing posits that sensory/information stimuli can activate multiple memory levels simultaneously. Generally speaking, the more meaningful or impactful the stimuli, the more levels that can be activated –and, hence, the more enduring and reliable the resulting memories.
Other subdiscourses associated with Memory Research include:
  • Elaborative Interrogation (Tim Seifert, 2010s) is a method intended to enhance memory by asking the learner not just to remember a fact, but to explain that fact – in the process, generating associations to prior learnings.
  • Forgetting Curve (Hermann Ebbinghaus, 1890s) is visual representation that is purported to show how a memory weakens over time when it is not practiced or rehearsed. That weakening is typically characterized as an exponential decay (and often described in terms of half-life – i.e., the time required to reduce to half of the current strength).
  • Overlearning (Hermann Ebbinghaus, 1890s) was originally defined as the number of repetitions needed in order to recall memorized material with 100% accuracy. It is currently more loosely defined in terms of practicing after the point of desired or required proficiency.
  • Sleep Learning (2010s; not to be confused with Sleep-Learning) is an emerging focus within Neuroscience concerned with a range of influences that sleep has on learning – both when awake (e.g., the relationship between rest and recall) and when asleep (e.g., the role of "playback" while dreaming in consolidating memories).
  • Sleep-Learning (Hypnopedia, not to be confused with Sleep-Learning) refers to strategies aimed as prompting learning during sleep. While ancient and popular, it is neither well understood nor well supported.


Perhaps the only substantial criticism that might be made on this topic is that humans tend to plod along without much considering the complex dynamics and the varied strategies associated with memory.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

It would be inappropriate to categorize Memory Research as a theory of learning, but it’s not such a stretch to suggest that any insight into memory is an insight into learning. As such, the information contained in this entry could be construed in terms of learning theory.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Memory Research is clearly not a theory of teaching. However, knowledge of memory systems, their distinct qualities, and their complementary natures could contribute substantially to the theory and practice of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

For the most part, popular discussions of memory frame in terms of Folk Theories (e.g., saving, storing, accumulating). As a general topic, then, it is usually not treated scientifically. As a focus of inquiry within Cognitive Science and related domains, however, Memory Research is scientifically theorized and researched.


  • Collective Memory
  • Cultural Memory
  • Elaborative Interrogation
  • Episodic Memory
  • Explicit Memory (or Declarative Memory)
  • Forgetting Curve
  • Implicit Memory
  • Levels of Processing
  • Long-Term Memory
  • Muscle Memory (Motor Learning)
  • Overlearning
  • Procedural Memory
  • Semantic Memory
  • Sensory Memory
  • Short-Term Memory
  • Sleep Learning
  • Sleep-Learning (Hypnopedia)
  • Social Memory

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Memory Research” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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