Bad Memory is the Symptom of a Chronic Disease

A disease particle

And the disease is called “inefficient learning”.

Every day, learners of all ages ask me how to improve their memory. But this is the wrong question.

Memory is not a knob in our brain that we turn up or down. How well we retain information is the byproduct of the processes we use to learn it. In this article, I’ll briefly outline the main processes research has identified so far and how they impact our memory.

The ultra-condensed overview

For those of you who are impatient, here is the very, very short summary:

Good memory occurs when information is encoded into our long-term memory through highly self-regulated higher-order learning. As information is stored in more well-connected and relevant cognitive architectures, knowledge decay is subsequently reduced, and retention therefore improves. The added benefits of self-regulated higher-order learning include improved confidence, engagement and enjoyment of learning; better learning outcomes in assessments or other forms of retrieval needs; faster ability to learn high volumes of information due to efficient layering and scaffolding of learning; and improved ability to retrieve information in more complex situations.

If that was enough for you, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in my other articles!

If you’d like more, let’s explore this further…

Storing information into long-term memory

According to structural models of memory, information is stored in the long-term memory through a process of encoding and retrieval. The three main components of the structural model of memory are the sensory memory, the short-term memory, and the long-term memory.

The sensory memory is responsible for briefly storing sensory information that is received from the environment. This information is stored for a very short period of time, typically less than a second, before it is either discarded or transferred to the short-term memory.

The short-term memory, also known as working memory, is responsible for temporarily storing information that is currently being used or actively processed. The capacity of the short-term memory is limited, and information that is not actively processed is quickly forgotten.

Finally, the long-term memory is responsible for storing information for an extended period of time, sometimes for a lifetime. Information that is transferred to the long-term memory undergoes a process of encoding, which involves the transformation of information into a form that can be stored in memory. This information can be retrieved at a later time through a process of retrieval.

A simplified version of this is provided in the diagram below. In this version, we have removed some of the terminologies that we do not think are necessarily useful for a practical understanding of memory and learning. This modification also addresses some of the inconsistencies and criticisms of the earlier models developed by Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968).

A high level summary of the structural model of learning
Figure 1: High-level conceptualisation of learning

Simple summary

  1. Information enters the brain
  2. We think about that information
  3. It gets “encoded” into our memory
  4. We can retrieve that knowledge later if we need

If we think about it “well”, then we “encode” it well. This means we forget less.

Thinking “well”

The right type of thinking is the type of thinking that helps memory stick in our memory longer and more easily.

This kind of learning is called higher-order learning. Higher-order learning is an approach to learning that goes beyond the simple recall of facts and focuses on developing a deeper understanding and the ability to apply knowledge to new situations. This approach involves the development of higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis, evaluation, and synthesis, which allow learners to make connections between different pieces of information and to see how different concepts relate to one another.

Bloom's revised taxonomy
Bloom’s revised taxonomy. According to Bloom’s, higher-order learning is analyse, evaluate, and create.

One of the benefits of higher-order learning is that it allows information to be encoded more strongly in long-term memory. When learners engage in higher-order thinking, they are more actively processing information, which can lead to deeper and more meaningful learning. This deeper processing results in stronger and more elaborate memory traces, which are more resistant to forgetting and more easily retrieved when needed. Furthermore, higher-order learning promotes mastery of a subject as learners develop a more complete and nuanced understanding of the material. This deep understanding allows learners to apply their knowledge to new situations, which is a key indicator of mastery.

In contrast, a focus on lower-order thinking, such as simple recall and memorization, can lead to shallow encoding of information and a limited ability to apply that knowledge to new situations. This approach may be sufficient for rote learning and memorization but not for developing a deep understanding of a subject.


Good memory occurs when we learn with the right processes. This isn’t to say that genetics has no impact, but most learners are nowhere near their genetic potential. Using the right methods of thinking and learning (higher-order learning) helps our brain to create better knowledge structures that enhance our ability to hold onto information and apply them at expert levels.

You may be interested in learning more about this with our related articles below the references.


Afflerbach, P., Cho, B.-Y., & Kim, J.-Y. (2015). Conceptualizing and assessing higher-order thinking in reading. Theory Into Practice, 54(3), 203-212. 

Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 2, pp. 89-195). Elsevier. 

Hamzah, H., Hamzah, M. I., & Zulkifli, H. (2022). Systematic Literature review on the elements of metacognition-based Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) teaching and learning modules. Sustainability, 14(2), 813. 

Thalmann, M., Souza, A. S., & Oberauer, K. (2019). How does chunking help working memory? J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn, 45(1), 37-55. 

Lewis, A., & Smith, D. (1993). Defining higher order thinking. Theory Into Practice, 32(3), 131-137. 

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