Elaborative and Maintenance Rehearsal

Author: Dominique Foster

It’s two days before a big exam. You told yourself you would study hard and be totally prepared for this exam, but alas here you are unprepared and freaking out! I’m sure we all remember a time when this was our situation. It typically goes something like this. You gather all of the material that might be on the exam, then you dedicate 80% of your time re-reading said material and 20% of your time repeating it to yourself in hopes that enough will stick long enough to remember it for the exam. Sound accurate enough? Well, in a perfect world you would have studied well ahead of time and been well-prepared for the exam. However, life happens and you might get stuck in a crunch every once in a while. If you’re reading this blog post, then something tells me you understand the importance of being prepared to take and ace an exam. If you’re looking for tips on how to do just that, then look no further! Today’s lesson is about how you can use two memory techniques to ensure what you learn for an exam sticks! Are you ready? Let’s get into it. 

When you study test material, you have one of two goals. You are either trying to store new information into your short-term memory (a.k.a. working memory) or trying to move information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. Let’s nickname these goals passive learning style for short-term memory storage and active learning style for long-term memory storage. You might choose the first goal (passive style) when studying for tests in elective classes that aren’t very relevant to your major or concentration. You might also choose passive style in situations like the one described at the beginning of this post. The second goal (active style) is usually in view when you are motivated to retain information long-term. Maybe this class is very interesting to you or it is highly important to your career path. No matter the goal you’ve set when studying, you will need to employ memory rehearsal to achieve it. 

In psychology, memory rehearsal involves the retaining of new information by way of repetition. There are two types of memory rehearsal: maintenance rehearsal and elaborative rehearsal. Maintenance rehearsal is exactly what it sounds like. You are maintaining information in your short-term memory by repeating the information over and over again until it sticks. The issue with maintenance rehearsal is that the information won’t stick forever. In fact, it won’t stick longer than any other information stored in short-term memory. Remember when we nicknamed short-term memory storage passive learning style? The reason this style of rehearsal is considered passive style is because you are simply repeating the information with no regard to context, meaning, or linkages to other concepts. 

An example of maintenance rehearsal is remembering a phone number. If you repeat the sequence of numbers enough times, the sequence will be retained in your short-term memory for some amount of time. However, if you do not associate the sequence of numbers with anything other than the numbers themselves, it is unlikely this information will stick with you in the long-term. Learning with flashcards is a common type of maintenance learning when studying for exams. You will eventually remember the information sets on the front and back of the cards, but over time this knowledge will diminish. Overall, maintenance rehearsal is a solid technique for learning information quickly and retaining it for a brief period of time. Just don’t expect the new information to stay with you after it’s no longer immediately useful. 

The second type of memory rehearsal is elaborative rehearsal. Elaborative rehearsal functions similarly as maintenance rehearsal in that you retain new information via repetition. The main difference is that unlike maintenance rehearsal, elaborative rehearsal involves learning the meaning, context, and linkages between the new information and other concepts. This difference is why elaborative rehearsal is considered an active learning style. You greatly increase the likelihood of successfully storing information in your long-term memory when you deeply process the new information along with its meaning, context, and association with other previously-acquired knowledge. 

Let’s say you need to learn about the standard deviation. If you want to learn what it is and retain that information in your long-term memory, then you will have to do more than learn the definition and formula. You would need to actively learn about the standard deviation using elaborative learning techniques. Try connecting it to something you already understand or using examples in a context that you are already familiar with (e.g., shoe size or height). You could also break down the formula into pieces and gain a solid understanding of how those pieces come together to create the standard deviation. You could also try explaining it to a friend. These tactics help reinforce the knowledge and situate it within a broader mental map that’s already been created. Elaborative rehearsal is obviously the better of the two types of memory rehearsal because it allows for deep learning that will stay with you in the long run.

So, what have we learned? We’ve learned that studying involves memory rehearsal via repetition. There are two types of memory rehearsal: maintenance rehearsal and elaborative rehearsal. Though maintenance rehearsal is considered to be the lesser of the two, both have their place in the learning world. If you need a quick-fix for a fast-approaching exam (or just an exam for a class that’s not very relevant for you), maintenance rehearsal might be the way to go. However, if you need to learn new information long-term, then elaborative rehearsal won’t steer you wrong. 

Hope this helps!