eCoaching Tip 61 Steps in Memory-Making:  What Teaching Behaviors Make a Difference

November 9 2008; Checked April 17 2020

eCoaching Tip 61  Steps in Memory-Making:  What Teaching Behaviors Make a Difference

Do you know which of your teaching behaviors make a difference in what students actually remember and use over time? This tip suggests some behaviors that can make a positive difference.

What do you think is the percentage of the key concepts in your course that your learners integrate into useful knowledge?  Do you think it is10%, 30%, 50%, or maybe even 80%? How confident are you about your estimate?

Data on exactly what students master during a course is difficult to obtain, but we do have a couple of data points. There is data that summarizes results from a test on core physics concepts from students in 14 different traditional lecture-based courses. This research suggests that the mastery of core concepts from lecture-based physics courses is consistently about 30% or less (Hake, 1998 in Weiman, 2008). Are you surprised that it is that high?  Or that low?

Does this mean that students’ memories aren’t working very well?  Would you agree with the Queen’s observation to Alice in L. Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, that we all have poor memories, particularly if they only work backwards?  (Recall that the Queen could remember forward as well.) Well, probably not.

What this data probably means is that lectures are inefficient tools for developing mastery of concepts. Why might this be so? Would we get similar results from students in online courses?

Using a Memory Process Model to Increase Learning

This tip describes the cognitive process that our brain uses for creating long-term memories.  This is the question for you. What change(s) —sbased on this memory process model — might I implement to the learning experiences in my course to increase the likelihood that students will integrate and apply core concepts?

A Look at a Memory-Making Process Model

How does memory work? Is it a one-time event or a series of events? Here are two useful definitions:

  • Memory is the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of information. (Long, 2006)
  • Memory is a linear process beginning with “sensory registration and finally leading to the consolidation of some information into long-term and/or remote memories.” (Loftus, 1996 in Long, 2006a).  During the first stage–acquisition–an event is perceived and information about it is initially stored in our short-term memory. In the second stage—storageor retention–information is resident in long term memory. In the final stage–retrieval–memory is searched and pertinent information is retrieved and communicated.

So what does this mean?  It definitely means that memory is not a one-time event.

Acquisition of knowledge — whether declarative or procedural knowledge — begins with a stimulus to our visual, auditory, or touching senses which results in sensory registration or memory.  If we don’t pay any attention to the sensory input, it usually simply disappears.  Moving the initial sensory data into short-term memory requires attention to the sensory inputs. Once the data is in short term memory, we need to encode and organize the data and move it into long-term memory.  This step results in the knowledge being integrated and connected with other memories in long-term memory.   Once data is in long term memory it may be available for retrieval, or it may not, depending on how much it is used.

Check out the diagram of the steps in the making of memories:

Multi Store Model of Memory

Each step in the memory process takes time.  It takes time for sensory input to be registered in sensory memory, and then to be encoded in short term memory and moved into long-term memory (Atkinson-Shiffrin, 1968). Since making memories takes time, attention and processing, it reinforces the need to build attention and processing time for encoding core facts, concepts and applications.

Definitions of each of these process points are at the end of the tip for those of you who would like a little more clarification on each of these memory process events.

Teaching Strategies with the Memory-Making Model

At this point, let’s go back to the question for the tip.  What teaching strategies and behaviors are important for students to master concepts?  Here are a couple of suggestions for you to consider.

We often design our online courses on a weekly basis.  In fact, one of the ecoaching tips (17)  encourages setting up a weekly rhythm for your course, mapping to the topics and modules within a course.

Thinking about memory as a linear process with at least 3 to 5 steps suggests teaching strategies such as the following:

  • Structure the initial learning of core concepts into steps, creating experiences that ensure processing time for stimulus, sensory registration steps. This approach supports the acquisition step, requiring attention to the stimuli.
    • Ask questions such as, “What “caught your eye?” Had you “heard” or “talked” about ideas such as these before?
  • Engage the learners with the concepts, helping them in making connections and relationships to existing or earlier concepts. These activities help to move knowledge into short-term memory, and help to organize and encode the information so that it moves into long-term memory, supporting the retention stage.
    • Ask questions or design dialogue experiences that elicit engagement, such as, “Can you describe how these concepts might be linked or related to other memories or knowledge that you have?” What do you know already that is similar or different from these ideas?
    • Do you see a pattern emerging in this data? Can you draw a map with your team colleague showing the relationship of these data?
    • Is there anything that is confusing or strange about how these ideas, processes, actions relate to each other? Are there cause-effect relationships here?  Or other possible associations?
  • Consolidate ideas with opportunities for creative use of the concepts in complex unstructured contexts
    • Ask questions, such as, “Can you reproduce, write, describe what those ideas mean to you?”This is a great use of the student blogs, by the way.
    • Have the students apply the ideas in a simple to more complex scenario, so they can see the application of the concept and its probable relationship to earlier, similar concepts.

In subsequent weeks  regularly encourage students and yourself to refer to key concepts as the course proceeds and find linkages and connections in current happenings.  Each time the concepts are applied, or discussed as occurring in other contexts helps the learner to build a richer concept.

Can Sleeping Help the Encoding of Memories?

Eons ago when I was in college scientists rejected vehemently any possibility that we might be able to learn as we sleep. It now appears that while we might not learn new things while we sleep, sleeping is very important to learning and memory. Researchers are still working on determining precisely how the brain strengthens and enhances memories but what does appear certain is that “Sleep does something to improve memory that being awake does not do.”  The article cited belowsconcludes by saying that  “Sleep makes memories stronger, and it even appears to weed out irrelevant details and background information so that only the important pieces remain.” (Stickgold & Ellenbogen, 2008, p. 24)

This finding suggests that we can increase our mastery of concepts by getting more sleep. That is a welcome finding for all of us. Imagine this instruction to our students.  Read the instructions on solving quadratic equations, solve or work on 2 or 3 of these problems and then take a 20-minute nap.


Our memories work in complex ways.  We are still learning exactly how they work.  But what we do know is that memory and learning take time with repeated exposures and practice. And now we know as well, that it is probably helpful to sleep regularly.

We also know that our memories work more or less well most of the time, but that they don’t always work the way we wish they might. And they definitely only work backwards, unlike Carroll’s Queen who gets giddy from working with her memories that go forward!

Background – Memory Stages and Process Definitions  (Long, 2006a)

  1. Stimulus – Sensory Registration. In this step an event or object is perceived, such as seeing, hearing, reading, touching, moving.
  2. Attention -Short-Term Memory. In this step, sufficient attention is devoted to an event or object that information moves into “temporary storage.”  Short-term memory has limited capacity and thus information or knowledge must be consolidated, encoded and stored quickly or it is lost.
  3. Consolidation – Retrieval into and from Long-Term Memory. Long-term Memory is “memory that has been consolidated or stored so that it is available after distraction.”
  4. Remote Memory. Represents the storehouse of information that was acquired early and serves as the foundation for later memories.


Atkinson, R. C., & Siffrin, R. (1968). Atkinson–Shiffrin memory model. Retrieved from

Kandel, E. (2006). In Search of Memory: The emergence of a new science of mind (Paperback ed.). New York Norton.

McLeod, S. A. (2017). Multi Store Model of Memory. Retrieved from

Stickgold, R. & Ellenbogen. J. M. (2008) Quiet! Sleeping brain at work. Scientific American Mind(August/September 2008) 19 (4), 22 – 29.

Wieman, C. (2008). Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science. Retrieved on July 23, 2010 from

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita- Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2020