Elaborative encoding

“Elaborative encoding” describes what we do when we relate knowledge to existing memories or experiences. Making these connections is thought to improve recall, particularly when connections are made to especially distinctive and emotionally-connected targets.

It’s most often used in mnemonic methods, where people might remember numbers by relating them to celebrities, places, smells, etc.

Some Spaced repetition memory system users explicitly write prompts to promote elaborative encoding. Experiments by Karpicke and Smith (2012) suggest this may not be adding much, vs. retrieval practice alone. Related: Retrieval practice appears to be a more effective learning activity than elaborative encoding.


Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Science, 331(6018), 772–775.

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


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


* Is the Testing effect produced by Elaborative encoding? When you review prompts in a Spaced repetition memory system, you give yourself an opportunity to form new connections based on your current context and the different thoughts you have during the review session.