In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Memory in Educational Settings

  • Introduction
  • Learners’ Study Habits and Beliefs
  • Principles of Multimedia Design
  • Combining Strategies as Pedagogical Approaches

Psychology Memory in Educational Settings
Veronica Yan, Lisi Wang
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0230


One of the goals of education is for learners to not only take in new knowledge, but also be able to unleash it in new and creative ways. Learning (the acquisition of skill or knowledge) is a process, and memory is the expression of that process. The expression may be as simple as being able to repeat information that was taught (regurgitation, recall), or as complex as being able to apply that new knowledge to new situations (application and transfer), and to combine elements in innovative ways (creating). Learning and memory are therefore central to education, and yet it is surprising how little teachers learn about and discuss how individuals learn and recall information. Cognitive and educational psychology researchers start at the basics—memory dynamics and the underlying processes that are engaged in learning—and leverage this knowledge in designing instruction. We begin this bibliography with a couple of historical overviews that highlight how the dominant approaches to learning and instruction have changed over the past century, and then focus in particular on the cognitive, information-processing approach. Two prominent cognitive frameworks will be discussed that approach strategies for enhancing learning and memory in different ways: cognitive load theory and desirable difficulties. The cognitive load theory framework starts with the fact that cognitive processing capacity (e.g., working memory) is highly limited. In this framework, the focus for improving learning is to reduce cognitive load to better direct learners’ attention to critical features of to-be-learned materials, hence improving encoding. In the desirable difficulties framework, in contrast, the focus for improving learning is to increase active and elaborative processing of information. In many ways, the side effect of this is not to reduce difficulty for the learner, but to increase the experience of difficulty and challenge. The focus of the desirable difficulties framework is not just on improving the initial encoding of information, but also on its maintenance and retrieval. Many learning strategies and instructional design techniques come out of these frameworks, with substantial effects on learning. We not only list the literature on each learning strategy, but also consider how these strategies interact with individual differences, and with learners’ metacognitive judgments and beliefs. What is apparent from the literature is that more popular strategies are often relatively ineffective, while effective strategies are often underappreciated. Learning and memory can be enhanced in educational settings, but strategies and techniques must be learner-centered and based on empirical evidence.

Foundational Perspectives

The references in this section are intended to provide a context to understand the references in the other sections. The first subsection contains Historical Overviews, which detail the ways in which psychologists have approached memory and education in the past, to understand how we approach memory and education in the present. The following two sections discuss two different frameworks for understanding how to improve learning—one in which learning is made easier (cognitive load theory), and one in which learning is made more challenging (desirable difficulties and productive failure). These two frameworks may at first glance appear to be incompatible, but they both ultimately emphasize the importance of underlying cognitive processes, and together they illustrate the care and complexity that is required to understand how to improve learning and instruction. Finally, the Literature Overviews section directs the reader to a few resources that summarize the different areas of research to provide specific recommendations for learners and instructors.

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