How to Improve Memory, Based on The Science

April 24, 2021 By Eric Olson
How to improve memory

Enhancing Learning Outcomes and Memory: Mechanisms and Strategies

This post was written with Consensus AI Academic Search Engine. Effective learning and memory are critical for academic success and everyday functioning. Understanding the mechanisms that enhance these processes can provide valuable insights into improving educational strategies and cognitive performance. This article reviews various mechanisms and methods for boosting learning outcomes and memory retention.

Active Learning

Active learning involves engaging with the material through activities like discussing, teaching, and applying the information. Research indicates that active learning improves memory and understanding by promoting elaborate encoding and retrieval paths. This approach contrasts with passive learning, where information is merely received, such as listening to a lecture or reading text passively.

Mechanisms of Action:

  • Elaborative Encoding: Active learning facilitates deeper processing of information, making it more meaningful and easier to retrieve.
  • Metacognitive Strategies: Active engagement helps learners to monitor their understanding and adjust strategies, enhancing learning efficiency (Markant et al., 2016).

Working Memory Training

Improving working memory, the ability to hold and manipulate information over short periods, has been shown to benefit overall cognitive functions and learning outcomes. Training programs focus on tasks that require updating, inhibiting, or shifting attention between different stimuli.

Mechanisms of Action:

  • Increased Capacity and Efficiency: Training can expand the amount of information working memory can hold and improve the efficiency of information use, potentially through neural plasticity and increased connectivity between brain regions (Bastian & Oberauer, 2013).

Pharmacological and Genetic Approaches

Advancements in neurobiology and pharmacology have identified potential methods to enhance memory through medications or genetic modifications that influence memory-related pathways in the brain.

Mechanisms of Action:

  • Modulation of Neurotransmitters: Substances like modafinil or methylphenidate affect neurotransmitter systems, which can enhance cognitive processes, including memory and attention.
  • Genetic Modification: Increasing the expression of certain genes like those for the NMDA receptor can improve synaptic plasticity, a fundamental mechanism of learning and memory (Tang et al., 1999).

Environmental and Behavioral Interventions

Environmental factors such as reduced stress, regular exercise, and healthy sleep patterns are crucial for optimal learning and memory. Behavioral interventions include practice testing and spaced repetition.

Mechanisms of Action:

  • Stress Reduction: Lowering stress through mindfulness or yoga can improve cognitive function by reducing cortisol, which might otherwise impair cognitive processes.
  • Exercise and Sleep: These improve various aspects of cognitive function, including memory consolidation and neurogenesis, by enhancing blood flow and nutrient delivery to the brain.


Enhancing learning and memory involves a multifaceted approach, including active learning techniques, working memory training, and optimal environmental conditions, along with potential pharmacological support. By understanding and implementing these mechanisms, individuals can significantly improve their cognitive capabilities, leading to better learning outcomes and memory retention.

Implementing these strategies effectively requires an understanding of the underlying mechanisms, personalized approaches based on individual needs, and continual adaptation to the latest scientific research.




Interventions with promising evidence:
Most studies find these to be helpful…

Interventions that have mixed or little to-no-evidence:
Some studies find benefits, others not so much...

Education is essential on both an individual and societal level. The UN defines education as a fundamental human right and there is widespread consensus that education is tremendously important to human well-being,

Other studies have shown that education has a positive relationship with economic growth, health status and other indicators of human development

We know education is important – but knowing what positively impacts educational and learning outcomes is not as straight forward.

Let’s dive a little deeper in some interventions with promising evidence in how they can improve learning outcomes!

Interesting study on promoting students interest: “RCT” from 2013

TLDR; while not a traditional randomized controlled trial, this experiment gave some students math problems about subjects they were interested in (sports, music, movies) and others normal math problems. The students who received personalized problems performed better in every possible way and continued to perform better even after the “treatment” was stopped. 

Interesting study on ability grouping: Study from 2011 on homogenous ability grouping

TLDR; this study looked at 60 students from randomly selected classrooms, these students were either grouped randomly or grouped by ability. When measuring their performance across four measures of achievements, this study found that grouping students with peers of similar ability resulted in better learning outcomes 

Interesting study on the use of technology: 2016 Study from Spain

TLDR; this survey of over 100 teachers found that the two main impacts of technology in the classroom were that they facilitated access to information and increased engagement

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