Elaborative encoding is a method for improving memory through verbal or visual associations and explanations.
It is done by linking newly acquired information to details already present in the learner’s existing knowledge base.
An elaborative encoding example can be seen when learning a new language: individuals can connect the foreign words they are learning to images or memories of those words.
By making associations with prior knowledge, individuals can better store and later recall details they have learned since they associate each new piece of information with multiple related points.
Elaborative encoding allows learners to create contextualized knowledge, giving them a greater depth of understanding regarding how different concepts interact with one another.
Elaborative Encoding Definition
Elaborative encoding is based on the idea that thoughts and concepts can be better stored in the brain through forming associations between related pieces of information, attaching explanations to newly acquired facts, and actively engaging with material by creating meaningful categories.
It involves taking something newly learned and connecting it to previous knowledge, aiding in data retrieval when necessary.
It is based on a cognitive-constructivist approach to learning that holds that our minds make meaning of our world through assimilating and accommodating information into our existing mental schema (rather than simply using repetition techniques).
According to Bedford (2020),
“…elaborative encoding is the process of actively relating new information to knowledge that is already in memory” (p. 115).
This method involves actively connecting new ideas or concepts to details already present in one’s memory banks.
Depending on the user’s preference, this can be done through:
Coon and colleagues (2021) extend this definition and write that elaborative encoding means:
“…making memories more meaningful through processing that encodes links between new information and existing memories and knowledge, either at the time of the original encoding or on subsequent retrievals” (p. 229).
This method allows individuals to add personal interpretations and create meaningful connections between various points.
Thus, it provides greater contextual clues for better recall and depth of understanding regarding how different concepts interact.
Elaborative Encoding Examples
- Studying for a test: When studying for an exam, an individual typically uses elaborative encoding to associate new material with previously-learned content. Doing so, they can better remember and recall important facts related to the exam topic. For example, they may link the name of a foreign ruler to a story about their deeds, making such information easier to remember. (It also allows us to develop higher-order thinking skills like compare and contrast).
- Learning a skill: Whenever we learn a new skill, such as playing a musical instrument or learning a sport, we use elaborative encoding to link new movements and techniques with existing knowledge of the activity. For instance, if a guitarist is learning an alternative picking pattern, they may recall the technique by linking it to the standard strumming pattern they already know.
- Memorizing names: Elaborative encoding assists us when memorizing someone’s name by connecting the person’s name with a physical characteristic (e.g., hair color) or associating it with something already familiar (e.g., “Cathy is my colleague’s daughter”).
- Navigating a city: To more easily navigate an unfamiliar area, users may apply elaborative encoding by associating certain landmarks with different sections of the city (e.g., “the bank is on the right side of the park”).
- Language acquisition: When acquiring a foreign language, individuals often use elaborative encoding to connect new words to preexisting ones in their native tongue for easier recall and comprehension purposes (e.g., connecting Spanish palabra with its equivalent English word).
- Interpreting artwork: When looking at art pieces, users can employ elaborative encoding by associating certain aspects of the artwork with other works they have seen or analyzed before (e.g., relating the painting’s blue hues to another painting that had a similar shade).
- Solving puzzles: Individuals may apply elaborative encoding while solving puzzles to remember where particular pieces belong on the board or match them up correctly (e.g., pairing shapes or colors together on wooden blocks).
- Reading novels: Many readers employ elaborative encoding while reading books to better comprehend plot points and characters’ motivations (e.g., recalling that Joe was introduced into the story during chapter three).
- Memorizing recipes: Chefs often use elaborative encoding when preparing recipes to quickly jog their memory regarding what ingredients should be added at which stage during cooking (e.g., adding tomatoes early on in preparation but holding off on herbs until just before service).
- Playing video games: Players can apply elaborative encoding while gaming as well to remember which buttons do what actions and how levels progress over time. For instance, they may associate the action of jumping with a specific controller button to make gaming more efficient.
Types of Elaborative Encoding
With so many ways to utilize elaborative encoding, it is useful for individuals to be aware of the many approaches they can take to optimize the process. The most common include the Method of Loci, Link System, Peg-Word Method, and PAO (Person, Action, Object).
Here is a brief overview of each method.
1. Method of Loci (or Memory Palace)
This method relies on creating a mental visual of a familiar space, such as one’s own home or office, and associating each element with an item or concept to memorize (Qureshi et al., 2014).
For example, if an individual wishes to recall the “seven deadly sins,” they may create an image of their living room and associate each sin with a different piece of furniture, such as gluttony with the kitchen table and envy with the couch.
2. Link System
The link system is similar to the memory palace method, which involves forming mental visual images of known elements to associate with new information (Karpicke & Smith, 2012).
However, instead of forming entire landscapes, users must only form associations between two items or concepts (e.g., linking a banana with yellow).
3. Peg-Word Method
With this technique, users first create an ordered list of words representing numbers from 1-10 (or more) which the individual easily recalls (Worthen & Hunt, 2010).
These serve as pegs for other items requiring recall which can be linked together through rhymes or images related to those words (e.g., connecting red pencils with the number 2 peg word ‘shoe’ as both have three letters).
4. PAO (Person, Action, Object)
This memory technique, often used by memory athletes, involves generating symbols for each category – person, action, and object.
These symbols are used to create mental images that are then connected to form a story, providing context for remembering multiple pieces of information at once (Foer, 2016).
For example, one might create an image of a scientist drinking coffee while in a laboratory connected with quantum physics.
Benefits of Elaborative Encoding
The elaborative encoding provides numerous benefits, such as increased understanding, improved recall, enhanced problem-solving and creativity, and easier communication.
Here is a detailed explanation of benefits of elaborative encoding:
1. Increased Understanding
Through elaborative encoding, users can better understand the information they are trying to memorize as they connect related concepts and form relationships between them (Bradshaw & Anderson, 1982).
2. Improved Recall
Elaborative encoding allows individuals to recall facts or concepts more quickly since they have linked multiple items.
In addition, it helps us remember material for the long term due to its association with other known things (Bradshaw & Anderson, 1982).
3. Enhanced Problem-Solving
By creating associations between different concepts, individuals can apply their associative thinking capabilities when faced with complex problems, connecting theories and ideas that were previously unrelated (Bradshaw & Anderson, 1982).
4. Improved Creativity
This form of encoding encourages users to think outside the box while forming connections and analyzing data, thus reinforcing creative thinking skills beneficial in various areas of life (academic or otherwise).
5. Easier Communication
As people become more used to elaborative encoding, they can communicate abstract concepts and complex topics more easily.
They rely on word association techniques and language that their listeners will understand, thus improving overall communication between groups of people.
For example, teachers need knowledge of the concept in order to know how to effectively communicate new concepts to students and have them ‘peg’ those concepts to older concepts.
Related Concept: Encoding Specificity Principle (which can also help you remember things!)
Limitations of Elaborative Encoding
Despite some benefits, elaborative encoding has several limitations, such as being time-consuming, having limited recall, causing inaccurate associations, cognitive overload, and overconfidence.
Here is a detailed explanation:
Elaborative encoding can be time-consuming, requiring the individual to think deeply about all the concepts they are trying to learn and decipher possible connections between them.
2. Limited Recall
A person may have difficulty recalling all of the individual pieces of information if their elaboration is not sufficient enough (Hunt & Worthen, 2006).
If this happens, comprehension of the topic or concept will be hindered due to a lack of connections and associations in the user’s mind.
3. Inaccurate Associations
If the individual forms inaccurate associations between concepts, it can lead to confusion down the line when attempting to apply what was learned (Bradshaw & Anderson, 1982).
Thus, it is important to ensure that links and relationships formed are accurate for elaborative encoding to succeed.
4. Cognitive Overload
Elaborative encoding can put a strain on the brain if too much information is attempted to be processed at once (Kirschner, 2002).
In certain cases, people may be unable to understand complex topics since their brain capacity has exceeded its natural limits.
In some cases, individuals may become too confident with this form of encoding and think they have mastered a particular subject matter even though they may have only grasped surface-level knowledge.
It could potentially lead to incorrect conclusions or assumptions being drawn from material that was not, in fact, fully understood or internalized by the individual.
Strategies to Improve Elaborative Encoding
Despite some cons, elaborative encoding can be an effective way of learning. A few strategies one can use to improve the effectiveness of this form of encoding – from breaking down information into smaller pieces to engaging in discussions.
Strategies to improve elaborative encoding include:
- Breaking Down Information Into Smaller Chunks: Instead of attempting to learn everything simultaneously, breaking down complex topics into smaller parts can help the individual focus on specific concepts and easily form associations (see: chunking method).
- Building a Mental Model: Creating a visual or mental representation of the different concepts can help individuals make sense of the material they are trying to learn and maintain a better understanding of it over time.
- Attaching Emotional Significance: Connecting words or ideas with an emotional connotation can assist with recall because it helps anchor certain pieces of information in our minds. For instance, using humor or mnemonic devices like rhymes when creating associations is handy.
- Engaging in Discussions: Asking questions to others about what was learned and discussing related topics can help solidify knowledge by reinforcing concepts and forming additional connections with other people’s perspectives.
Elaborative encoding is a powerful technique for improving memory by connecting newly acquired information to existing knowledge and memories.
Elaborative encoding has several types – from visualizing concepts to associating them with emotional significance – which can help make learning easier and more effective.
The method has numerous benefits, such as enhanced understanding, improved recall, and better problem-solving abilities. However, it has limitations, such as being time-consuming and causing cognitive overload.
By employing strategies such as breaking down information into smaller chunks, building mental models, and attaching emotional significance, individuals can strengthen their memory retention and overall comprehension of complex topics.
Bedford, D. (2020). Knowledge architectures. Routledge.
Bradshaw, G. L., & Anderson, J. R. (1982). Elaborative encoding as an explanation of levels of processing. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 21(2), 165–174. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0022-5371(82)90531-x
Coon, D., Mitterer, J. O., & Martini, T. (2021). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior(15th ed.). Cengage.
Foer, J. (2016). Moonwalking with Einstein. Penguin.
Hunt, R. R., & Worthen, J. B. (2006). Distinctiveness and memory. Oxford University Press.
Karpicke, J. D., & Smith, M. A. (2012). Separate mnemonic effects of retrieval practice and elaborative encoding. Journal of Memory and Language, 67(1), 17–29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2012.02.004
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Qureshi, A., Rizvi, F., Syed, A., Shahid, A., & Manzoor, H. (2014). The method of loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate learning in endocrinology leads to improvement in student performance as measured by assessments. Advances in Physiology Education, 38(2), 140–144. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00092.2013
Worthen, J., & Hunt, R. R. (2010). Mnemonology: Mnemonics for the 21st century. Psychology Press.