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


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

Last updated 2023-07-13.