Skills Converged Training Resources

What Are the Basic Principles of Memory

What Are the Basic Principles of Memory


This is a fantastic exercise in teaching a number of important topics related to memory and retention. The exercise is actually rather simple—going through a list of words and recalling what has been stated. However, the way the list is structured helps to cover various interesting topics in relation with memory such as the following:

  • Effect of primacy on memory
  • Effect of recency on memory
  • Repetition
  • Element of surprise
  • False-memory


You will hear a list of words. Write down as many of them as you can recall.

What You Need

  • A list of words. Consider the following list:
    • Spoon
    • Bag
    • Plate
    • Scorpion
    • Chair
    • Pan
    • Sweet
    • Alarm
    • Bent
    • Chair
    • Light
    • Flower
    • Curtain
    • Wet
    • Chair
    • Door
    • Dinner
    • Plaster
    • Tomato
    • Car
    • Papers


  • Provide the papers to delegates.
  • Explain that you will shortly read a list of words to them. Delegates must listen without taking any notes and try to remember as many words as they can. Once you have finished reading the words, they can start writing down as many words as they can recall.
  • Say “Are you ready”?”
  • Once everyone is ready, start reading the words from the list.
  • Once finished, expect everyone to write down what they can recall.
  • Now ask the following questions and expand on the related topics:
    • Primacy. “Who remembered ‘spoon’?”
      • Many of you remembered this word. This is because of primacy which means we are good at remembering the first item in the list.
    • Recency. “Who remembered ‘car’?”
      • Many of you remembered this word. This is because of recency which means we are likely to remember the most recent word heard; i.e. the last one in the list.
    • Repetition. “Who remembered ‘chair’?”
      • Many of you remembered this because it was repeated three times in the list.
    • Surprise. “Who remembered ‘scorpion’?”
      • Many of you remembered this word because it stood out from the rest of the list. It is also an unusual word which makes it easy to remember in comparison with a bunch of other general words you just heard.
    • False-memory. “Who remembered ‘table’?”
      • Was this really in the list? (See if anyone spots that this word was not in the list). It wasn’t in the list, but you might have believed that it was because there were several related words such as “chair”, “dinner”, “spoon”, and “plate” which triggered an association with “table” and led to a false-memory.
  • Follow with a general discussion.


Explaining the Exercise: 2 minutes

Activity: 15 minutes including explanations

Group Feedback: 5 minutes


What did you think of this exercise? How can you apply what you have learned here about memory to practical applications on memorisation? How can you relate this to your work? How does it relate to decision making by suggesting you need to pay more attention to recent data or repeated data more than others? How does this relate to media, propaganda and politics? How does it relate to storytelling? How can you exploit this to deliver a memorable presentation?