Contributor: Lynda Davies

Memory and Authentic Learning Design resource

Research into memory formation and use helps explain why authentic learning works.

In this episode, you will have seen the tipsheet and video explore how authentic learning design and activities both rely on and strengthen long term memory formation and successful retrieval.

There are some key points to consider when designing your students’ learning through course structures, session learning activities and pedagogies:

Information that is organised on the basis of existing knowledge (and experience) is much easier to learn and understand.

  • It is why we often try to relate new stuff to something we (or someone close to us) have experienced or already know.
  • Try to find ways to connect the new information your need students to learn with what they already know – even if it sometimes means they have to change/update that prior knowledge.

Having the opportunity to re-study material and go over concepts and skills with reasonable intervals between the first and second (or subsequent) periods strengthens memory retention and recall.

  • Doing it too close together, however, diminishes the benefit significantly.
  • Simply re-reading material only offers a small improvement in learning.
  • A much more effective way of improving memory is for students to test themselves on the material – checking what they remember. Rehearsing it allows the brain to correctly arrange the information in the hippocampus.
  • Design opportunities for students to encounter the new information many times in a variety of formats.
  • The more we use knowledge (i.e., retrieve the long term memory into the working memory and apply it to something) the stronger the physical neural (memory) connections become.

How the new information is encoded into knowledge also plays a significant role in the accuracy and success of memory retrieval.

  • The artificial context and environment we create needs to closely represent the situation we are simulating. This is so the retrieval cues our brains create as we learn match, as closely as possible, the stimulus/trigger events that prompt our students’ use of that knowledge outside the classroom.

Linking new information to workplace, professional or community issues creates relevance and meaning which helps both the formation of memory and connections between the new knowledge and its future applications.

Forgetting, or incompletely/incorrectly remembering something is often caused by a mismatch between the retrieval cues when the memory was formed.

  • If the situation in which the thing learned is significantly different to the situation in which it needs to be used, then the brain does not necessarily make the correct connections when trying to retrieve that knowledge.
  • If the way in which something was learned did not create meaning/relevance then the retrieval of that knowledge may not be as successful as it could have been had deep meaning-making occurred during the learning process


Consider the design of a learning activity and how it could provide an opportunity for students to:

  • connect new information with what they know? or
  • reflect on new knowledge and how it fits with what they already know? Or
  • practice using/debating new ideas in relation to a professional or community issue?



Memory and Authentic Learning Design

Teacher-guided, Learner-generated course design

Assessing Authentically


Further Reading

Burnett, Dean. (2016). The Idiot Brain: A neuroscientist explains what your head is really up to. London, Great Britain: Guardian Books.

Memory – Structures and Functions – Information, Processing, Memories and Model. Viewed 16 December, 2016.

Sweller, John. (2016). Working memory, long-term memory, and instructional design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 5. pp 360-367


One thought on “Making memories through authentic learning

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