At a recent memory conference, a colleague asked whether creating lasting memories can help students remember what they learned. This is even more crucial during tests and examinations when students are anxious and nervous, with a strong tendency to forget.

Lasting memories can help students learn faster and remember what they learned.

Let’s look at what students remember and what they forget when they study, and how to create lasting memories.

What students remember and forget

The brain does not have an infinite amount of memory. As a result, it “decides” which information is worth consuming up valuable long-term storage space. This method of “deciding” is essentially based on engagement, emotion, and recollection.

We’ll discuss more on this, but first, let’s look at students’ memory.

What do students remember?

When asked what they remember, most students will say they remember information that is:

  • relevant to what they are learning, or going through,
  • action-oriented or acted out, performed, or gestured,
  • retrieved or recalled frequently,
  • emotional or something that has a strong emotional bond.

Think about any memory you have from years ago like a special occasion, a break-up, a get-together, finishing a degree program, or a school success. You will notice the memory you remember is similar to what the students say they remember: it’s important to you, you experienced it, you probably remembered it many times, and you are attached to it emotionally.

What do students forget?

Students usually forget more than 75% of what they are taught.

When asked what they forget, they will say the opposite of what they remember. They forget information that is:

  • not relevant to them in their studies,
  • not acted out or demonstrated,
  • not retrieved or recalled frequently,
  • not emotional or not affecting them.

Think of your school days when you can remember mathematical formulas, history dates, and quotations from Shakespeare plays. Today, you can’t remember them. Why? Because they are probably not relevant to your work, you don’t use them anymore, you don’t need to recall them, and there is no emotional bonding with the information.

How to create lasting memories

Let’s look at these four factors and how you can create lasting memories to help your students or staff improve their learning and remembering.

Show relevance

Relevance is everything to the brain. If the brain is not buying into the content, the brain will not change (Green & Bavelier). And if the brain does not change, then no learning has occurred (Engineer, et al.).

Students feel value when their teachers understand where they (the students) are coming from and use that understanding by making connections. Relevance’s objective is to connect and it is done by engaging the student’s voice, culture, history, and stories. These connections help to link the content to the students’ lives.

Every time you connect, the meaning and interest of the content increase. As a result, students are more likely to remember what they learned, thereby creating lasting memories.

Use action and gestures

In the learning process, use an action like movement, theatre, or gesturing. When you use gestures on important concepts, your students will be able to hear what you are saying without having to visualize it. This lessens their cognitive load and helps them learn. (Ping & Goldin-Meadow).

Gesturing has a firm foundation in helping students learn (Cook, et al.). The gestures that children make when explaining a task determine whether or not they will learn that skill later. This is because children’s gestures simply represent their readiness to learn a specific task. Alternatively, gestures may play a role in learning the task.

On the other hand, requiring children to talk, but not gesture, during the learning, does not solidify the learning. By encouraging children to move their hands, you can help them improve their learning (Cook, et al.).

For those of you who are speakers and teachers, studies by Ping and Goldin-Meadow showed that gesturing can reduce your cognitive load. This reduction can provide cognitive benefits when speakers talk about objects that are not present and so cannot be directly pointed out by gestures.

Gesturing also provides benefits than just linking abstract speech to objects that are directly visible. Furthermore, the cognitive benefit from gesturing is greater when new learners produce gestures that add to the information when they speak, than when they produce gestures that convey the same information when they speak. This implies that it is the gesture’s meaningfulness that gives it the ability to affect memory load (Ping & Goldin-Meadow).

Do retrievals frequently

Retrieval simply means giving students time to retrieve earlier learning by writing it down without studying or looking at notes.

Here’s an interesting study conducted in a school (Roediger, et al.). Students were divided into two groups: the experimental and control groups. Both groups were given the same material for the same length of time and at the same time. The control group was told to review the material with text and slides. The experimental group was given a short quiz followed by a review of the materials with text and slides. The difference between the two groups was between studying and retrieving.

The results showed that students who studied (control group) got an average of 79% correct, whereas those who did the quiz, which was a brief retrieval exercise, and then studied (experimental group) got an average of 92% correct.

There is now a growing body of evidence that doing quizzes and tests is effective in improving grades and scores. The question is why teachers are not using quizzes and tests more frequently to help their students learn.

Most learners confuse (1) familiarity and fluency with (2) the ability to retrieve the content. Looking at familiar content is simple; it appears that you can recall it. Retrieving content is hard, mental work, and it strengthens memory when practiced.

So, looking at something familiar is easy for the brain but it does not improve memory as much as retrieving it. And if you retrieve it frequently, this will create lasting memories.

Link emotion to the content

Emotionally exciting events tend to be the best recalled of all memories (McCaugh, 2003).

Unpleasant events, such as a car accident, receiving bad news, or being told that you lost your job, are remembered better than normal day experiences. Pleasant memories, such as birthdays, weddings, and holidays are also well-remembered. (Conway, et al.).

The emotional impact of events also influences the strength of the recall. In other words, the more emotional the event, the stronger the recall of the event.

In one study, about 200 participants learned a word list before watching a movie that was emotionally arousing. Both the pleasant and unpleasant movies improved their memory of the word list (Nielsen & Powless).

Other studies showed college students who watched an arousing video clip did much better in a midterm assessment than students who did not watch the video clip ( (Nielsen & Arentsen).

Emotions, whether they are happy or sad, can trigger the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which support memory encoding (McGaugh, 2013). And this happens via the amygdala which activates the fight or flight response.

There are many findings that emotional arousal affects memory through amygdala activation. In a study using PET imaging, researchers found that people who watched emotionally arousing films had amygdala activation resulting in better memory of the films they watched (Cahill, et al.)


So, to help your students or your staff remember better, give them information that is:

  • relevant to what they are learning in class or working on in the office,
  • action-oriented, like getting them to use movement, gestures, role-play, or working through the processes,
  • retrieved frequently, like going through quizzes, tests, or reviewing best practices at work,
  • emotional that they can relate to, like getting awards, promotions, and recognition for work well done.

This will create lasting memories that will help your students and staff learn and remember effectively.

Neuroscientist James McGauge has done a lot of work on lasting memories. Check out this YouTube video where he talks about “Creating Lasting Memories”.


  • Cahill, L., Haier, R. J., Fallon, J., McGaugh, J. L. “Amygdala Activity at Encoding Correlated with Long-Term, Free Recall of Emotional Information.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 93, no. 15, 1996, pp. 8016-8021.
  • Conway, M. A., Anderson, S. J., Larsen, S. F., et al. “The Formation of Flashbulb Memories.” Memory & Cognition, vol. 22, 1994, pp. 326-343.
  • Cook, S. W., Mitchell, Z., Goldin-Meadow, S. “Gesturing Makes Learning Last. Cognition, vol. 106, no. 2, 2008, pp. 1047-58.
  • Engineer, N.D., Engineer, C. T., Reed, A. C., et al. “Inverted-U Function Relating Cortical Plasticity and Task Difficulty.” Neuroscience, 2012, vol. 205, pp. 81-90.
  • Jensen, E. “How is a Student’s Memory at Test Time?” Adapted with permission.
  • McGaugh, J. L. Memory and Emotion: The Making of Lasting Memories. Columbia University Press, 2003.
  • McGaugh, J. L. “Making Lasting Memories: Remembering the Significant.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, no. 2, 2013, pp. 10402-10407.
  • Nielson, K. & Arentsen, T. J. “Memory Modulation in the Classroom: Selective Enhancement of College Examination Performance by Arousal Induced after Lecture.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, vol. 98, no. 1, 2012, pp 12-16.
  • Nielson, K. & Powless, M. “Positive and Negative Sources of Emotional Arousal Enhance Long-Term Word-List Retention When Induced as Long as 30 Min after Learning.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, vol. 88, no. 1, 2007, pp. 40-47.
  • Ping, R. & Goldin-Meadow, S. “Gesturing Saves Cognitive Resources When Talking About Nonpresent Objects.”  Cognitive Science, vol. 34, no. 4, 2010, pp. 602-619.
  • Roediger, H. L., Agarwal, P. K., McDaniel, M. A., McDermott. B. “Test-Enhanced Learning in the Classroom: Long Term Improvements from Quizzing.”  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, vol. 17, no. 4, 2011,   pp. 382.
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