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The study of memory

The study of memory; Memory and learning are inseparable. The importance of memory in learning should not be underestimated by all those involved in education. Since the advent of formal education, educators have tried to understand what memory is, how it works and how it can be enhanced through teaching and learning in the classroom.

Since the restructuring of GCSE qualifications and specifically, the shift from modular to final year exams, there is now a greater focus on helping students to learn and retain greater amounts of information. At MADE, we conduct regular and extensive research into the theories and science of memory with the aim of delivering the most relevant and effective studying techniques within our workshops. Over a series of articles, we look forward to sharing our research with you.

Memory, is it an amazing filing cabinet?

One popular image of memory is as a kind of filing cabinet full of individual folders in which a huge capacity of information is stored away, and then recalled at will. Not too dissimilar to a desktop PC.  In the light of modern scientific knowledge, this metaphor is not entirely useful and current experts believe that memory is in fact far more complex than that.

Memory, is it inborn or learned?

The study of human memory stretches back to Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul. In this, he compared the human mind to a blank slate or tabula rasa and theorised that people are born free of any knowledge and are merely the sum of their experiences, a theory of memory which held sway for many centuries. In antiquity, it was generally assumed that there were two sorts of memory: the natural memory or a priori (the inborn one that everyone uses every day) and the artificial memory or a posteriori (trained through learning and practice of a variety of mnemonic techniques).

Ebbinghaus and the scientific approach to memory

It was not until the mid-1880s that the German philosopher Herman Ebbinghaus developed the first scientific approach to studying memory. He conducted personal experiments over many years using lists of three letter nonsense syllables, and then associating them with meaningful words. Many of his findings (such as the concepts of the forgetting curve, and his classification of the three distinct types of memory: sensory, short-term and long-term) remain relevant today.

The work of Ebbinghaus is useful to both students and teachers as it clearly illustrates the importance of both active learning (the creation of vivid memories) and spaced learning (timely revisions). He hypothesised that basic training in memory techniques can help to overcome difficulties in loss of focus or concentration. He asserted that the best methods for increasing the strength of memory are:

  1. Better memory representation (e.g. with mnemonic techniques)
  2. Repetition based on active recall (esp. spaced repetition).

His premise was that each revision increases the interval before the next repetition is needed (for near-perfect retention, initial repetitions may need to be made within days).

In our work with students, we find that this simple yet compelling theory is one that students can not only understand, but it also builds confidence in their ability to revise. The ‘little and often’ approach is far more convincing and much less daunting than the ‘cram like a nutter for three weeks’ method.

Links to the work of Ebbinghaus:





Written by Sander de Groot

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