Design Learning to Work with Human Memory

How Memory Works

Your working memory is the receptionist of the brain’s very busy lobby, taking in all the information and directing it to hopefully the right place. And it’s chaos. Our sense of overwhelm starts here. Yes, it can juggle 4-7 things. That does not mean we should continue to test the limits of something that actually can’t change. Our brain does marvelous things, including growing and building new neural pathways, yet humans are frequently dead set to try and change the ONE thing that cannot: the capacity of our working memory.

So let’s increase the flow state for this poor receptionist, and set some intentionality. The influx that your working memory is handling often results in decision fatigue and overwhelm. However, you can make this a powerful learning experience that strengthens your brain by more effectively converting the information from short term to long term. How can we do that?

  • Group or chunk the data in ways that allow information processing to be much easier
  • Create story themes especially with the traditional beginning, middle, and end that we subconsciously know
  • Manage your long term memory better so that you don’t have to keep relying on your short term memory to re-assess information

As trainers, coaches, and learning designers, we are in a prime place to shape how the learning is aligned to the right memory goals. We can take some pressure off the receptionist of all your learners’ brains and prepare the transition to the kind of long term memory that serves the learners best.

Setting the Learning Stage

We want the learners to engage with the material in some long term way. Is it a transformational concept where they change how they think about something (episodic)? Is it something you want them to do without thinking (procedural)? Is it sufficiently complex that you’re wanting them to think critically when they encounter it (priming)?

Although all learning, whether in day-to-day work or in the training room, starts with the gateway of Explicit Working Memory, we have a choice on how we want to drive towards the long term memory.

Explicit Episodic Memory

This is the most difficult to engineer in the learning environment. Thus all the pencil-in-the-eye simulations, demos, and exercises. There are some engineered episodic memories that work. There so very many that fail so utterly that it’s fair to feel the air get thin when people are told to split into groups. If you are going to try and engineer one, try to make it deeply connected to the individual’s personal values and create a story. You will get farther faster.


Implicit Procedural Memory

This will never happen in a training room. Procedural memory is embedded in our subconscious from so much practice that we don’t have to think about it anymore. It will be far easier to replace an existing procedural memory because you can use that as a catalyst for the change.

As such, the stage of training is nothing but awareness, or if extremely well done, an embodied experience (learning through mobbing is a great example). However, by understanding that even the most active and visual aid supported workshop won’t have a behavior change beyond a few days, you can give them the tools for long term change.

  1. Find the tiny shift that actually needs to be the new behavior
  2. Identify the old behavior that is being replaced
  3. Create “if this, then” cues for the new behavior
  4. Encourage regular peer reflection and story sharing of the practice


Again, this is an intrinsic subconscious long term memory; but this one is unique in that you are trying to extend its capability. Association is one of the most powerful memory triggers we have, so creating more associations to a concept they need to learn will not only cultivate their memory for it but trigger critical thinking. Consider the last time somebody used a metaphor to explain a scenario. It is likely your brain grabbed and ran with it, seeking to further the metaphor or break it. Either way, the individual is creatively engaging with the concept and will stick far longer than any set of facts regardless of how powerful they are.

Aligning the Learning to the Memory

This article focuses on how to shape the learning experience in ways that are the most effective for long term change. If we burden the working memory, we’ve already lost. If we transition that working memory to the long term memory that we are wanting to engage, then we’ve turned on the brain’s quintessential gears. I left out Extrinsic Semantic Memory because these generally known facts are typically crowdsourced or scaffolded across years such as childhood school. I left out Intrinsic Conditional Memory because this is not something I feel we want in learning. Even if you are a robot, it’s better to be the more critical thinking R2D2 than a purely responding Stormtrooper. All humans experience the effects of conditional memory, but it’s not something I propose for intentional learning experiences.

The next time you are needing to share any kind of information, ask yourself how you plan to help that individual’s proverbial receptionist route it properly. Can you group or chunk that data for easier reception? Can you create a story theme? Or can you engage the long term memory with an experience, the start of a new behavior, or association?

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.