Long-term memory is not just a single mental process, although we don’t always consider this important fact when we talk about remembering or memorizing or learning something.
Types of Long-Term Memory
There are two main categories of long-term memory: Declarative Memory (sometimes called Explicit Memory, and Procedural Memory (sometimes called Implicit Memory). These categories represent different ways our brains store and retrieve information.
Declarative Memory refers to the conscious, intentional recollection of facts, events, and concepts. It involves the ability to consciously retrieve and verbally express specific information. Declarative memory includes our knowledge, facts and general information, such as the meaning of words, knowing that we need to stop at a stop sign or knowing that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). Those are referred to as semantic memory. It also includes episodic memory, the ability to recall personal experiences and specific events (what you had for dinner last night or how your spouse proposed to you).
Procedural Memory involves the learning and recall of skills, habits and procedures, such as riding a bike, typing or playing a piece on the piano. These are skills that we can perform automatically without conscious thought.
Skills that are stored in procedural memory must be practiced over and over in much the same way to become fully automatic. On the other hand, knowledge of facts, events and concepts is not best learned through rote memorization, but by techniques that enable the learner to engage with the information and connect it to prior knowledge and related information stored in our brains.
The reason that it is important to distinguish between these two broad types of memory is that the techniques to learn them are very different.
From a cognitive point of view, we can also differentiate between long-term memory that is primarily visual in nature (images, charts, graphs, diagrams, pictures), and that which is primarily verbal in nature (what we read or hear, something language-based). This distinction is important because most of us have one of these cognitive skills (Verbal Memory or Visual Memory) that is stronger than the other; and that has implications for the strategies that we use to commit information to memory.
Techniques to Improve Retention of Information in Long-Term Memory
Some principles of memory retention are general and apply in most situations. Others depend to a significant extent on the relative strength of our long-term memory skills (whether verbal or visual memory is stronger).
- Connecting to prior knowledge. Associating information with what we already know helps create stronger connections.
- Retrieval practice. We can think of retrieval practice like a quiz, but point is for us to check our own ability to remember whatever the information is, not the teacher. The effort of trying to recall information strengthens memory.
- Spaced practice. Cramming is out. Distributing practice over time is in. When we revisit the materials over time and at increasing intervals, it helps reinforce memory and prevent forgetting.
- Breaking down complex information into smaller, more manageable subsets, or chunks, makes it easier to remember and retrieve the information. For example, learn the capitals of a group of states or countries (western states or European countries).
- Mnemonic devices. This technique involves using associations, acronyms, rhymes, melodies or visual imagery to make information easier to remember. Every Good Boy Does Fine, for example, represents E, G, B, D, and F, the notes corresponding to the lines of the treble clef.
- Multisensory techniques. Engaging multiple sense, such as listening and reading or acting something out (gestures) while saying it.
- Sufficient sleep. Our memories consolidate (get stronger) when we sleep. Enough good quality sleep is important for long-term memory storage.
3 Techniques to Improve Memory and Information Retention
The principles above apply, pretty much regardless of one’s learning strengths and weaknesses. Here are some learning strategies that are appropriate for learners with stronger visual or verbal memory.
Stronger Visual Memory
- Use pictures whenever you can. If your teacher shows a picture, draw it in your notes or ask for a copy. Create a picture in your mind while listening or reading; even draw the picture, especially if the information is important. Create flashcards with pictures. The pictures don’t have to be great art – simple stick figures work well.
- Use the charts, diagrams and pictures in your textbook to remember key concepts. Don’t skip over the visuals provided in your textbook. Your brain will have an easier time holding on to that when you need to retrieve the information.
- Color code your notes with a highlighter so that you can memorize and relate information by color.
Stronger Verbal Memory
- Re-state what you hear in your own words to remember more easily. When you need to remember a picture, write a description and memorize the description.
- Use mnemonics or create a story with numbers to help you memorize formulas, constants, and other numerical information.
- Say it aloud to remember. Hearing it, not just reading it will help you remember.
Cognitive Training to Improve Visual and Verbal Memory Skills
In addition to using effective techniques to make it easier to retain information over time, our long-term memory skills can also be improved with the right kind of cognitive training. On average, children with weaknesses in either visual or verbal memory, or both, improved their memory scores on a scientifically valid, national normed cognitive assessment by 25 to 38 percentile points, moving their skills into the middle of the expected range, following participation in a BrainWare Learning cognitive training program.