The Role of Memory in Learning: Increasing the Impact of Education

March 28, 2018 By Jane Stanfield

As nurse educators, we can improve our learners’ ability to apply the knowledge that we teach by using methods that assist with recall and the formation of long-term memories.

Memory and learning are closely linked concepts.

Our ability to learn, and repeatedly apply that learning to practice, depends on our capacity to process, store and retrieve information from our memory.

One effective way to do this is by facilitating the formation of deep, long-term memories in our learners as part of the education we provide. This will better enable our learners to correctly implement new knowledge and skills into their practice into the future.

So, how can nurse educators make new knowledge stick?

Firstly, we must have an understanding of memory and how we, as educators, can facilitate the formation of long-term memories in our learners.

The three stages of memory are:

  1. Encoding Memory
  2. Storing Memory
  3. Accessing Memory (Retrieval)

We can then effectively apply this knowledge to our teaching by considering the AGES Model of Learning:

  • Attention
  • Generation (Insight)
  • Emotion
  • Spacing

Three Stages of Memory

Stage 1: Encoding Memory

Encoding has to do with how memory enters our consciousness.

We all have a limit to how much information we are able to process and encode at any one time. However, this limit is dependent on the amount of prior knowledge we have.

If an individual possesses a large amount of prior knowledge on a given subject, they are able to process more new information at any one time.

It is important for nurse educators to recognise this, as it will affect how education is provided to different audiences. When an audience consists of learners with little prior knowledge, the limit to how much new information can be provided is very low. However, if the audience consists of more experienced practitioners, much more new information can be introduced.

In the video below, Dr Jared Cooney Horvath, an expert in the field of educational neuroscience and the enhancement of teaching and learning practices, discusses how we can more effectively reinforce learning by focussing on the storage of memory.

Stage 2: Storing Memory

We still don’t know where in the body memories are stored. We do know that memories are stored categorically, whereby individuals will associate new information with categories of memories that already exist.

We also know that when forming a memory, our consciousness will favour the opening and closing moments of the experience.

In terms of an education session, this results in learners having a clear memory of knowledge provided at the beginning and end of a session, but only a general understanding of the information delivered throughout the middle.

In order to combat this, nurse educators should establish clear goals for each education session. This will act as a map of the learning that will take place, helping to orientate learners.

Further, educators should deliver new information with a strong context around why this information is important. Providing clear context around ‘why’ will force the learner to categorise the information in a new way and thus optimise the memory that is formed around this new knowledge.

Finally, once a memory has been encoded and stored, a learner must be able to retrieve that memory in order to apply it in their practice.

Stage 3: Accessing Memory (Retrieval)

To strengthen memories, they must be repeatedly accessed.

Memory is constructive, therefore each time you access and bring out a memory, the easier it becomes to access it in the future, the more neural pathways it creates, and the stronger that memory becomes.

As nurse educators, we can encourage our learners to access memories by guiding them to actively recall or retrieve information. This can be done in various ways, including assessment and discussion.

Now that we know how memory is encoded, stored and accessed we can begin to practically apply this knowledge to our role as nurse educators.

Further reading: Top 10 Teaching Strategies for Nurse Educators – Delivering Effective Nursing Education

In the video below, Jane Stanfield, a content expert in health service and learning improvement, outlines some practical strategies that nurse educators can employ to ensure that learners retain the information delivered in education sessions.

The AGES Model of Learning

The AGES Model of Learning is a four-part framework that nurse educators can lean on in order to maximise learning through the formation of deep, long-term memories.


Long-term memories cannot be formed unless the learner is paying full attention to the task. Nurse educators must recognise that multi-tasking has a negative effect on attention.

To maximise the opportunity for learning, educators must command maximum attention.

Further reading: How to Engage Time-Poor Nurses

Generation (Insight)

As opposed to simply presenting learners with new knowledge, ‘generating insight’ enables learners to personalise and assign meaning to the new knowledge.

Based on their individual context, learners make connections between prior knowledge and experiences, and the new information that is being processed. The new information is given meaning which increases the chance of it moving to long-term memory.

In order for nurse educators to guide their learners in this way, don’t simply present new knowledge and skills. Engage in meaningful discussions to encourage learners to form their own associations.


Emotions are an important factor to consider in the learning process as they are regulators of learning and memory formation.

The associations that learners form around new knowledge will be affected by the emotions that they are experiencing at the time of learning. Learning is more likely to stick in a positive environment.

Nurse educators can facilitate a positive emotional environment by providing encouraging, helpful feedback to learners.


It has been found that distributing learning over time leads to the formation of deeper memories. Spacing enables the learner to build stronger links in the brain to reinforce learning.

It is important for nurse educators to revisit learning provided in past sessions in order to maximise the retention of knowledge. This can be done through follow-ups, or revision of past-learning at the start of each education session.

With an understanding of memory and how it is connected to teaching and learning, nurse educators can improve a learner’s ability to understand and apply knowledge gained in education sessions.

By employing techniques that assist with recall and the formation of long-term memories, the impact of our education programs on patient care will increase.

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