Elaborative encoding

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Elaborative encoding is a mnemonic that relates to-be-remembered information to pre-existing memories and knowledge.[1] One can make such connections visually, spatially, semantically or acoustically. Practitioners use multiple techniques, such as the method of loci, the link system, the peg-word method, PAO (person, action, object), etc., to store information in long-term memory and to make it easier to recall this information in the future. Mnemonists at the World Memory Championships use many different forms and techniques of elaborative encoding - in addition to the ones listed above - to remember large quantities of information pertaining to each event of the competition. Each year, competitors invent new techniques and improve previous ones that allow them to remember larger quantities of information faster,[citation needed] so competitors must train year-round to keep pace with the newest techniques and tricks of elaborative encoding.[2][need quotation to verify]


New information and stimuli tend to be best remembered when they can be associated with old memories and experiences in order to enrich the new stimulus. The efficiency and success of encoding (and subsequent retrieval) is largely dependent upon the type of associations you choose to make. It is generally accepted that the more unusual and meaningful these elaborately encoded memories are, the more successful one will be in trying to retrieve them.[3] Elaborative encoding is most successful when the individual makes active attempts to elaborate on incoming information. This type of encoding also helps learning, as it constructs a rich set of integrated memories. Several theories suggest that ability to recall information is heightened when physical and mental conditions match those experienced when the information was first encoded.[4] For example, one will often be more successful in recalling a stimulus while chewing bubble gum if one were also chewing gum when one originally encoded the new stimulus. This has also been found to encompass drug- and alcohol-induced recollection; people who encoded memories in an intoxicated state were more successful at recalling them when in a similar state later on.[5] Verbal elaboration has also been shown to strengthen mental connections and boost retrieval (see also rehearsal).[6] Because the intensity and effectiveness of encoded connections varies from person to person, it is often difficult to study with consistent results.


  • Jennifer Coane (2013) sought to determine whether difference in age can influence the effectiveness of elaborative encoding.[7] She hypothesized that older adults do not normally use elaborative encoding and younger adults are constantly studying and learning new things through semantic processes, so younger people would have a much easier time recalling elaborated information. She also theorized that applying the study methods of young adults to older adults may have a similar effect on the participants’ ability to encode information. Coane tested a young group and an older group using 44 unique word pairs. Coane used three different sub-categories to test both groups: Deep Processing, Study-Study, and Study-Test. Participants in the Study-Study group were allowed to study each of the word pairs in any way they chose for both sessions. The Study-Test group worked similarly except that instead of simply memorizing, they were tested during the second session. Elaborative encoding was truly tested on the participants in the Deep Processing group, where the participants were asked in the first session to create similarities between the word pairs. In the second session they were asked to create a mental image that combined the word pairs. The results of the experiment showed that age overall didn’t significantly affect the performance of the older group as compared to the young adults, even if the young adults did slightly better.
  • To test the effectiveness of elaboration as a form of encoding, Bradshaw and Anderson (1982) asked two groups of participants to memorize obscure bits of information about a famous person.[3] In the first group, the participants memorized one single fact, such as "Mozart made a long journey from Munich to Paris." The second group was given two additional facts that were linked to the target sentence, such as "Mozart wanted to leave Munich to avoid a romantic entanglement," or "Mozart was intrigued by musical developments coming out of Paris." The two additional sentences served as verbal elaborations on the original target sentence and were theorized to strengthen the connections between the three facts. After a week, the participants underwent a cued recall test and were asked to provide the target sentence after hearing the word "Mozart." The study found that the group that was given the two additional sentences had a far easier time recalling the target sentence than those who weren’t given the additional facts, proving that verbal elaborations provided additional connections to the stimulus memory that improved the ability of participants to recall the original target sentence.[8]
  • In a study performed by Karpicke and Smith (2012), four experiments were conducted with elaborative study conditions based around mnemonics.[9] The experiments consisted of using imagery-based keyword method for Experiments 1 and 2, a verbal elaboration method for Experiment 3, and identical word pairs in Experiment 4. In Experiment 1, participants learned uncommon English words paired with their definition and were divided into three groups- repeated retrieval, repeated study, and drop. After each correct recall in the drop group the pair of words were removed from future study and retrieval tasks. After each correct recall of the repeated study group, the word pairs were removed from the study groups but not recall groups. After each correct recall of the retrieval group the words were removed from the recall groups but not the study groups. Subjects were asked to recall the word pairings one week later.. Experiment 2 had the same design as the first, but two differences and had the same results as the first experiment. Experiment 3 had similar procedure with Swahili-English word pairs but had a fourth group: repeated elaborations. The results of Experiment 3 showed that long term retention was more effective with repeated retrieval than repeated verbal elaborations. Experiment 4 the subjects were asked to learn word pairs and had different cues for target words or cues that would act as the target word. Results showed that repeated retrieval enhanced long term memory and mnemonics do not stem from elaborations, unless it was for the first recall. The experimenters do not undermine the effects that elaboration has on a persons ability to learn, it just did not apply in this experiment.
  • Eugene Winograd (1981) of Emory University conducted a study to find a correlation between elaborative encoding and the memory of faces.[10] Winograd's theory was that it was easier to remember a person's face based on perceived judgment of honesty, friendliness, or intelligence rather than physical traits like a big nose or bushy eyebrows. Within this study he held two experiments which slightly differed. In experiment one, he took a lecture hall full of college students and chose them to be his test subjects. These students were shown 72 black and white 35-mm pictures of adult males of varying ages. The pictures only showed the head and shoulders of the men, and were particularly picked so that the faces would not be familiar to the students. Each face was presented for 8 seconds. The subjects were asked one of three questions pertaining to the physical appearance of the pictured men; Does he have a big nose? Does he have straight hair? or does he have a square jaw. Later in the study they were asked one of three questions pertaining to judgements of the men; Does he look friendly? Does he look honest? or does he look intelligent? Later the subjects were shown the faces again and had to say if they remembered the faces or not. In experiment two, the same steps were followed as in one, but only with 56 faces this time. This time for each picture the subjects were shown, they were asked a series of the same questions. One set of questions pertained to physical traits, such as big ears, thin lips, and bushy eyebrows. All questions were asked in the form of "Does he have..." The other set of questions pertained to characteristic traits, such as friendly, snobbish, and intelligent. These questions were asked in the form of "Does he look..." Again they were asked if they recognized the faces or not. The findings of Experiments 1 and 2 support the hypothesis that memory for faces is a function of the number of features encoded. It was proposed that the reason why this was so effective was because when the human brain encodes, it is highly informative. The research has shown that the way facial recognition and memory work is by increasing the probability of encoding a distinctive trait.


Elaborative encoding is often a very beneficial tool to save and recall information. Since connections can whenever any new stimulus enters our perception, the scope of things that can be encoded is nearly limitless. In a practical sense, actively relating new information back to previous knowledge expands and intensifies the web of memories and mental connections. Elaboration has proven to be very effective when encoding names, faces and locations. The ability to recall encoded memories has also been a useful tool in diagnosing mental disabilities such as Alzheimer's disease.[11] Type mnemonics are often an effective way of transferring information into long-term memory and being able to recall it easily in the future. However, since most people do not actively train themselves on mnemonics after it has proved its usefulness these skills become less effective with age.[12] Another method of elaborative encoding is sometimes referred to as the link system. By this method, individuals associate new information and stimuli with rich and exaggerated memories in order to make them easier to recall.


  1. ^ Compare: Groome, David (1999). "6: Long-term memory". In Groome, David (ed.). An Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: Processes and disorders (3 ed.). Hove, East Sussex: Psychology Press (published 2013). p. 168. ISBN 9781317976097. Retrieved 2017-08-09. Elaborative encoding refers to the formation of associative connections with other memory traces, and this occurs most effectively where meaningful associations can be found.
  2. ^ Foer, Joshua (2011), Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, New York: Penguin Group, ISBN 9781101475973
  3. ^ a b Anderson, J. R.; Gary L. Bradshaw (1982). "Elaborative Encoding as an Explanation of Levels" (PDF). Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 21 (2): 165–174. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(82)90531-x.
  4. ^ Najjar, Lawrence J. (1996), The Effects of Multimedia and Elaborative Encoding on Learning (PDF), doi:10.1148/3628 (inactive 2019-08-20)
  5. ^ Brown, Scott C.; Craik, Fergus I. M. (2000). "Encoding and Retrieval of Information". In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Memory. Oxford University Press. pp. 93–107.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
  6. ^ Bahrick, H. P.; Clark, S.; & Bahrick, P (1967). "Generalization gradients as indicants of learning and retention of a recognition task". Journal of Experimental Psychology. 75 (4): 464–471. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/h0025131.
  7. ^ Jennifer H. Coane (2013). "Retrieval practice and elaborative encoding benefit memory in younger and older adults". Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. 2 (2): 95–100. doi:10.1016/j.jarmac.2013.04.001.
  8. ^ Anderson, J. R. (1994). Learning and memory: An integrated approach. New York: Wiley.
  9. ^ Karpicke, J. D. & Smith, M. A. (2012). "Separate mnemonic effects of retrieval practice and elaborative encoding" (PDF). Journal of Memory and Language. 67 (1): 17–29. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2012.02.004.
  10. ^ Winograd, E. (1981). "Elaboration and distinctiveness in memory for faces". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory. 7 (3): 181–190. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.7.3.181. PMID 7241060.
  11. ^ Knopman DS, Ryberg S (1989). "A Verbal Memory Test With High Predictive Accuracy for Dementia of the Alzheimer". Arch. Neurol. 46 (2): 141–145. doi:10.1001/archneur.1989.00520380041011. PMID 2916953.
  12. ^ Anschutz, Lucy; Camp, Cameron J.; Markley, Robert P. & Jack J. Kramer (2007). "Remembering mnemonics: A three-year follow-up on the effects of mnemonics training in elderly adults". Experimental Aging Research. 13 (3): 141–143. doi:10.1080/03610738708259315. PMID 3691584.