These notes are part of a series for the book.

Dirksen, J. (2012) ‘Ch. 4, How do we remember?’, Design for How People Learn, Berkeley, CA, New Riders.


  1. Memory in and out
  2. Types of memory
  3. Repetition and memory
  4. Summary


Encoding and retrieval

Sensory memory is fleeting memory of information discovered via your senses, which moves to short-term memory if you pay attention to it. Habituation is what happens when you no longer notice something picked up in sensory memory because it’s ongoing. For example, you may not notice the feel of your watch on your wrist, or the sound of your refrigerator, or even banner ads on websites. From an instructional design perspective:

Working memory is memory that is in a working area while you take action on it. You discard these memories shortly after acting on them. For example, you may hear the weather report, stock market averages, or sports scores every day, but you only remember it if it’s unusual or important to you. Even then, you are likely to remember it for only a period of time unless it was highly unusual or important.

Common wisdom is that we can keep 7 (plus or minus 2) items in our working memory at a time, but it’s more complicated than that. Dirksen gives these examples to explain:

Long-term memories are memories that you keep. You add one or more tags to information as you store it: this is called encoding. Encoding helps you find the information later. The more tags you are able to add to information, the more likely you can retrieve it (or, remember it) later. From an instructional design perspective:

Types of memory

Explicit memories are the things you can articulate knowing. Implicit memories are the things you know but you can’t talk about in a meaningful way.

Declarative (or semantic) memory are the things you can state: facts, principles, and ideas. Episodic memory is a type of declarative memory. It’s when you can relay a story about specific events in your life. The author uses dogs as an example: You can state facts about dogs (they have four legs and fur) and that’s declarative memory. You also may be able to tell a story about a dog you had, a neighbors dog, a scary dog you encountered, etc., and that’s episodic memory. One reason storytelling works is because it makes use of episodic memory.

Conditioned memory (or conditioned responses) are implicit memories. That is, it’s information stored in our brains but not something we can easily articulate. For example, after practice playing a video game, how to use the buttons on a controller become conditioned memory.

Procedural memories are the step-by-step procedures for doing something.Procedural memory can be explicit or implicit. For example, if you know how to drive somewhere but can’t tell someone the step-by-step directions, or if you know a phone number but need to pretend to tap a keypad to state the number then those are procedural memories that are implicit.

Flashbulb: Something happens when memories are stored during times of high emotions. For example, people can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when JFK was shot, or when the Twin Towers were hit during 9-11, or when they learned that Pearl Harbor was bombed. This probably evolved as a survival technique. The instructional designer can draw much more lightly from this by using emotion to improve memory of facts.

Reinforcing connections

When you learn something new, you make connections that are reinforced with repetition. That’s why most learning requires practice. From an instructional design perspective:

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