Basic Memory Tasks: Recognition, Recall & Relearning

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How we learn information is important, but so is how we remember it. In this lesson, we'll explore the basic tasks of memory and see how old information is recovered by the mind.


Learning is great. It's important to try to learn from new information, new skills, and new experiences. Unfortunately, whatever you learned is basically meaningless if you can't remember it. Memory is a very important function within our brains; it allows us to store and retrieve the massive amounts of information we encounter throughout our lives. There are a few basic ways that our minds can do this. Each task involved in memory can help us retrieve or retain information in different ways. Don't forget that.

The mind uses several methods to form and recover memories

Memory Retrieval

When your mind learns something new, it commits that information to memory and then basically forgets about it. That information is not directly relevant, so it stays buried in the memory until such time as it is needed again. The process of bringing back information from the memory is called memory retrieval. This is how you remember things, but the act of retrieval is not always easy. The longer information goes without being used, the more likely it is that pieces of it will be forgotten. So, the mind relies on two basic methods of retrieval to try to bring back as much information as possible.


The first form of memory retrieval is recognition. Memories retrieved this way are identified by the brain based on some external clue. Basically, the mind recognizes that something is familiar, and is then able to retrieve the memory based on that association. Imagine that you want to go back to a great little restaurant you once tried, but you can't remember what it was called. So, you take a drive down the street and look for a restaurant that looks familiar. You are trying to get your brain to recognize the physical appearance of the building. The memory is there, in your mind, but it's incomplete. However, a visual cue will help fill it in.

Recognition is generally an unconscious process, something our brain is constantly doing to find contextual clues surrounding us that can help retrieve relevant memories. However, it can be a more conscious action as well. If you've ever taken a multiple-choice test and realized you didn't directly remember the right answer, what did you do? You went with the answer that looked most familiar. Ideally, part of your mind recognized the correct term within the list.


The other main form of memory retrieval is recall. Recall describes retrieving a memory without any additional clues. It's simply remembering, drawing information out of the memory banks and using it. Recall can be improved through study habits and practices of learning. The more consistently that the mind is forced to recall information, the easier it becomes to retrieve that information without effort. This is why some pieces of information, such as your pet's name, are just automatic. You don't have to think about it, you simply remember. That information has been recalled so many times that the brain knows exactly where to go to find it.


Sometimes, however, a memory has been too neglected for the brain to retrieve it. It can't be recalled, and even visual clues aren't enough to spark recognition. Still, there's a chance that the brain is aware of the existence of that memory, even if it can't find it. The mind knows that the information was once there. If this happens, then being exposed to the information again will prompt the process of relearning.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account