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 (Sensory Register; Sensory Store) – Lingering image/tone/feel after a perception happens, operating as a sort of information buffer for Short-Term Memory. Generally, a Sensory Memory lasts less than a second, it cannot be controlled consciously, and it cannot be altered with practice. Types and associated constructs include:
    • Echoic Memory – that aspect of Sensory Memory that deals with auditory stimuli
    • Haptic Memory – that aspect of Sensory Memory that deals with touch stimuli
    • Iconic Memory – that aspect of Sensory Memory that deals with sight stimuli
    • Trace Decay – the waning of a Sensory Memory
  • 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. Related:
    • Working Memory – One’s capacity to manage and manipulate Short-Term Memory
    • Magical Number 7 (George Miller, 1950s) – the popular title of the widely accepted (though often disputed) limit of Short-Term Memory of 7 ± 2 items
  • Long-Term Memory – Extensive (i.e., limits are immeasurable) and enduring (i.e., potentially lasting an entire life span) recollections. 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
      • Body Memory – the notion that memory can be distributed across the body. Althought Body Memory is currently considered hypothetical, the notion is commonly invoked in discussions of childhood trauma and physical prowess.
    • Explicit Memory (or Declarative Memory) – the conscious recollection of facts, concepts, and past experiences. There are two types:
      • Episodic Memory (Autobiographical Memory) retention of specific personal experiences
      • Semantic Memory (Semantic Knowledge) – meaningful retention of facts and concepts
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.
Contemporary insights of Memory Research emerged piecemeal over the last half-century. Important models in this emergence included:
  • Atkinson–Shiffrin Model (Multi-Store Model; Modal Model) (Richard Atkinson & Richard Shiffrin, 1960s) – Although it has been heavily criticized, the Atkinson–Shiffrin Model anticipated many insights of contemporary Memory Research in its assertion that memory comprises three stores: Sensory Memory, Short-Term Memory, and Long-Term Memory. The model proposes that memories are transferred to Short-Term Memory are encoded as sound, and those transferred to Long-Term Memoryare encoded as meaning.
  • Levels of Processing (Depth of Processing) (F. Craik, R. Lockhart, 1970s) – Rather than distinguishing types of memory in terms of stages, durations, and capacities, Levels of Processing posited 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.
  • Tulving’s Model (Endel Tulving, 1970s) – Tulving proposed that there were two types of Long-Term MemoryEpisodic Memory and Semantic Memory, which he described more-or-less as above. Later, he added Procedural Memory (also, very much as described above), and proposed a sequence of development that started with Procedural Memory in infancy, followed by Semantic Memory, and finally Episodic Memory.
  • Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) Model of Memory (D.E. Rumelhard, 1980s) – Unlike other popular models, PDP doesn’t focus on different types of memory. Rather, it frames memory in terms of brain activity, proposing that memory can be understood as activation flows through neuronal networks that are parallel (i.e., multiple processes occur simultaneously) and distributed (i.e., they happen in multiple locations).
  • Cognitive Array Model (Array Model) (William Kaye Estes, 1990s) – Memory is organized in arrays of classifications and categorizations that one encounters in one’s environment. These arrays are organized according to principles of utility; their role is to enable one’s actions in the world.
Other subdiscourses associated with Memory Research include:
  • Elaboration Rehearsal (F. Craik, R. Lockhart, 1970s) – transferring information to Long-Term Memory through putting it into context of other knowledge or previous experience
  • 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.
  • Feeling of Knowing (FOK) – that confident sense of knowing something that cannot be immediately recalled. Closely associated constructs include:
    • Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon (TOT Phenomenon) – that frustrating sensation of being unable to summon a familiar name, word, or other detail
    • Retrieval Block – a temporary inability to summon a detail from memory, often associated with a sensation of being blocked
    • Fringe Consciousness – confident but hazy recollections of prior experiences
  • 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).
  • Generation Effect – information will be remembered better if the learner has generated it (as opposed to being told or reading it)
  • Interference Theory (Retrieval Interference) (various, 1940s) – the study of factors that frustrate learning and limit memory, such as prior learnings, inappropriate associations to familiar situations, accidental conflations, and so on. Specific types of interference include:
    • Retroactive Interference – when new learning makes it more difficult to recall or act on previous learning
    • Proactive Interference – when old learning interferes with new learning
  • Maintenance Rehearsal (F. Craik, R. Lockhart, 1970s) – keeping the contents of Short-Term Memory active by using rote repetition
  • 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.
  • Spreading Activation (Allan Collins & Elizabeth Loftus, 1970s) – a description of how ideas are organized in memory, based on a roadmap metaphor – intended to illustrate the notion of conceptual distance/proximity and to highlight how ideas are diffused throughout the brain


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. Within education, the spectrum of opinion on Memory Research is perhaps most strongly represented by the contrast of proponents of Rote Learning and those who frame learning in terms of the Sensemaking Metaphor.

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.


  • Atkinson–Shiffrin Model (Multi-Store Model; Modal Model)
  • Body Memory
  • Cognitive Array Model (Array Model)
  • Collective Memory
  • Cultural Memory
  • Echoic Memory
  • Elaborative Interrogation
  • Elaboration Rehearsal
  • Episodic Memory (Autobiographical Memory)
  • Explicit Memory (or Declarative Memory)
  • Feeling of Knowing
  • Forgetting Curve
  • Fringe Consciousness
  • Generation Effect
  • Haptic Memory
  • Iconic Memory
  • Implicit Memory
  • Interference Theory (Retrieval Interference)
  • Levels of Processing (Depth of Processing)
  • Long-Term Memory
  • Magical Number 7
  • Maintenance Rehearsal
  • Muscle Memory (Motor Learning)
  • Overlearning
  • Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) Model of Memory
  • Proactive Interference
  • Procedural Memory
  • Retrieval Block
  • Retroactive Interference
  • Semantic Memory (Semantic Knowledge)
  • Sensory Memory (Sensory Register; Sensory Store)
  • Short-Term Memory
  • Sleep Learning
  • Sleep-Learning (Hypnopedia)
  • Social Memory
  • Spreading Activation
  • Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon
  • Trace Decay
  • Tulving’s Model

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Memory Research” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List