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Memory / Recall Difficulties

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Characteristics of Memory / Recall Difficulties Impacting on Learning and Teaching

Short Term Memory

Short-term memory is the ability to hold information for a limited period of time, such as visual images (e.g. a shape or face) and / or phonological / auditory information (e.g. a spoken telephone number or sentence). Information can be held in this way for a few seconds. If information needs to be held for longer, a system of rehearsal can be used (e.g. repeating a number to yourself to help you remember). Should one of these skills fail to work in some way, this could lead to specific short-term memory problems. However, problems that appear to be due to poor memory can also have other causes, such as inattention, language difficulties and general learning difficulties. Therefore, a comprehensive neuropsychological assessment is necessary in order to reliably identify a specific memory disorder and rule out other possible causes of problematic behaviour.

Students with short-term memory disorders can also have particular problems in a number of areas, including:

  • Speech and language difficulties (including impairments in speech production and the acquisition of language).
  • Remembering instructions and learning common sequences like directions, assignments and deadlines.
  • Visual learning difficulties (including learning numbers and letters, finding their way around new environments as well as manipulating visual information like shape, colour and space).
  • Managing more complex problem-solving tasks like mental arithmetic.
Long Term Memory

Long term memory refers to a person’s ability to retain information over time, e.g. for minutes to hours or longer. There is much theoretical debate about which types of long term memory processing are possible in humans. One commonly debated account of long term memory is the difference between storing episodic and semantic information. Episodic memory is memory for events or episodes that include the contextual details of the learning experience, e.g. the ability to remember what happened that morning or to recall what happened on a particular date. Semantic memory is the ability to remember factual information that does not include the contextual details of the learning event. E.g. a student may know that the capital of France is Paris, but not remember the actual event when they were first told such a fact.

Students with weaknesses in their episodic memory can exhibit particular patterns of learning, behavioural and social difficulties. e.g.:

  • They may get lost easily.
  • They may repeat things previously done because they do not remember doing them the first time.
  • When questioned about their daily experiences they find it difficult to provide specific details or describe events.
  • They may appear socially aloof as they find it difficult to remember shared events.

Students with semantic memory difficulties will have more pervasive problems in learning the factual contents of the academic curriculum.

Auditory Sequential Memory

Students with a history of late-speaking and early speech and language difficulties often approach secondary school age with adequate levels of speech and understanding but residual problems which perhaps only they, their parents and tutors can detect. It is not uncommon for reading and writing difficulties to persist after speech problems have; alongside general difficulties with memory and recall.

By this stage, memory span is unfortunately unlikely to improve significantly. But if the student and those around them can understand and attempt to work, much can be done to minimise the impact of a poor memory on studies and day to day life.

Teaching Strategies

These strategies are suggestions for inclusive teaching. This list should not be considered exhaustive and it is important to remember that all students are individuals and good practice for one student may not necessarily be good practice for another. You may also like to contact the Disability Specialist in your institution for further information. If you have any good practice that you would like to add to this list, please email your suggestions to

  • Say things more than once, and ask for instructions to be repeated to ensure the student has understood. This is also a good indicator of how much information can be retained at once by the student.
  • Minimise the number of key points a student has to remember, sequence the items clearly and avoid any language that is likely to confuse the issues.
  • Work with students on finding memory strategies or triggers that are effective for them (e.g. visual cues).
  • Try learning in chunks (not mnopqr, but mn, op, qr).
  • Encourage students to consider using cue cards, for example when they are giving presentations.
  • Provide small-step instructions.
  • Provide explicit, logical links using different colours, cue lines, diagrams and known symbols when appropriate.
  • Offer students memorising techniques such as mnemonics (a visual approach to learning), mind maps, auditory strategies and learning by doing.
  • Encourage students to find their own strategies and become independent in their learning.
  • Be aware that it is always easier to remember arrangements / items when personally motivated. This is a natural facet of memory that ensures that individual priorities require the least effort.
  • Emphasise over-learning to help get learning into long-term memory.

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