Designing Tasks to Support Long-Term Memory

This is blog 6 in a series on Task Design. The other blogs can be found here – Task Design Series.

“Learning is defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.” – Sweller (2011)

This definition of learning as a change in long-term memory (LTM) has become common parlance over the past few years. If we are to take Sweller’s comments as the accepted truth, we must consider how tasks are designed to facilitate the building of LTM.

In order to do that, we have to look at LTM with greater precision. LTM is often divided into two types: declarative memory and procedural (non-declarative) memory.

Declarative memory is characterised as ‘knowing what’ – it is the storage of facts and events. For example, knowing that WW2 lasted from 1939-1945. Forming this type of memory can be rapid, with possibly even just one instance of attending to knowledge being enough. As Ullman (2004) intimates, declarative memory “is important for the very rapid learning of arbitrarily-related information – that is, for the associative binding of information”.

Declarative memory is based on recall and retrieval, because of this, it is also known as ‘explicit’ memory, as we can consciously remember it and recall it. Declarative memory is said to have ‘representational flexibility’ – that is, it can be recalled independent of the circumstances in which it was learnt.

Declarative memory is also believed to have the property of compositionality (Cohen et al, 1997) – the ability to represent the whole and its constituent parts simultaneously – e.g. democracy as people having power, but also as elections, voting, government, representation etc. Cohen et al believe it is this compositionality that allows us to manipulate representations and bind information in our heads, therefore, declarative memory is “a fundamentally relational representation system supporting memory for the relationships among perceptually distinct objects”.

In contrast, procedural memory is characterised as ‘knowing how’ – it is the storage of how to do things. For example, performing the steps of long division. Procedural learning aids the performance of a task without conscious involvement and that is why it is also referred to as ‘implicit’ or ‘non-declarative’ memory, as we cannot always articulate these memories, which are formed from habit.

It is also called implicit memory because previous experience in performing a task helps you to perform a task better, without conscious or explicit awareness of it. Forming this type of memory happens through slow, incremental learning – as such, one instance is not deemed enough for good performance of the procedure (in contrast to declarative memory). The ability to perform the procedure develops from experience-based tuning, where random or conscious adjustments build your ability to perform the procedure.

Koziol and Budding (2009) summarise the two types of LTM here:

“Declarative learning and memory lends itself to explicit, conscious recollection. Procedural learning and memory are implicit; the actual learning is inferred from an individual’s improvement in performing the task.”

So, we believe that learning is when long-term memory is altered, and that there are two types of long-term memory: declarative and procedural. It would be fitting therefore to consider that there are two types of task also: declarative and procedural tasks.

Declarative tasks seek to build memory around facts and events.

Procedural tasks seek to build memory around skills and procedures.

These two types of tasks are not a dichotomy, but actually closely intertwined. Serving a ball in tennis is a procedural act, but a pupil must first learn the declarative knowledge required to perform the serve (i.e., the height to throw the ball, position of the feet, where to strike the ball on the racquet etc). As Daniel Willingham (2009) posits, “Factual knowledge must precede skill”.

What are the takeaways if we are to pursue these two types of tasks?

Declarative memory tasks:

  • Design tasks to enable the learner to bind information together
  • Design tasks to facilitate spreading activation in the learner’s brain
  • Revisit declarative knowledge in a variety of tasks to facilitate representational flexibility
  • Consider task dependency – how one task builds or relies on tasks that have preceded it

Procedural memory tasks:

  • Design tasks that allow for identical procedural practice until the procedure is learnt


Cohen, Neal J.; Poldrack, Russell A.; Eichenbaum, Howard  (1997). Memory for Items and Memory for Relations in the Procedural/Declarative Memory Framework. Memory, 5(1-2), 131–178.        

Koziol, L. F., & Budding, D. E. (2009). Subcortical structures and cognition: Implications for neuropsychological assessment. New York: Springer.

Ullman, M. T. (2004) Contributions of memory circuits to language: The declarative/procedural model.

Willingham, D. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?


Published by mrmorgsthoughts

Curriculum Advisor. Interested in curriculum and task design.

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