Designing for success: Improving retention of learning through the method of loci

The goal of Instructional Design is to achieve specific behavioral outcomes; because of training, the trainee can now complete a learned task and/or demonstrate learned knowledge.  Instructional designers spend hours analyzing the needs of the organization and its learners, designing training plans, developing materials, implementing training, and evaluating results to accomplish this objective.  Unfortunately, even the best instructional designs must contend with the biological realities of brain science relating to memory and retention of knowledge; namely, that learners begin to forget what they have learned almost as soon as the training ends.  First hypothesized by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885, contemporary researchers have confirmed that information is exponentially forgotten from the time learners receive it (Murre & Dros, 2015).  This phenomenon, sometimes referred to as the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, is illustrated here:


For instructional designers, this is a significant problem.  As Leaman (2014) bluntly states, “While the training might be top-notch and feedback great in the classroom, if people can’t apply what they learn on the job, then the training has failed.”  What, then, is an instructional designer to do to ensure the effectiveness of their training?

The answer may lie in a memory technique called the “method of loci”, or the “memory palace” (Lebowitz, 2016).  Essentially, the learner associates ideas to be memorized with memorable scenes imagined being at well-known locations (“loci”), like a room in one’s house (Frakt, 2016).  Numerous studies support the effectiveness of this approach, as well as the fact that it is equally effective for both young and older adults (Verhaeghan & Marcoen, 1996).  The key is utilizing images/locations that are meaningful to the individual.  As stated in “The Rhetorica ad Herrennium”, the text from 80s BC which first introduces the method of loci, “everybody, therefore, should equip himself with images (that) suit his own convenience” (Lebowitz, 2016).

For instructional designers, this should reinforce the importance of gaining a thorough understanding of the audience, i.e. trainees, who will be receiving the training, as well as providing space in the implementation for personalization.  For example, learners/trainees can be given space to draw a map of their home, workplace, or other significant place, and then label significant locations with specific concepts from the training to be mastered.  They will then practice walking through the space in their mind, visualizing the locations and recalling associated concepts.

While repetition and reinforcement may be necessary before mastery of this technique, development of personalized mental models is a demonstrated effective approach worth exploring for instructional designers to increase the likelihood of trainee learning objective achievement.  This author can attest to its effectiveness; although additional practice/mental walk-throughs were needed, memorization of place-assigned concepts attained and remains at 100% accuracy.

Project Reflection –Client and Peer Feedback

In my own work, I have just completed an instructional design project for a local municipality. After submitting my implementation plan to both the client and a peer for review, feedback was largely positive with minimal suggestions for improvement.  The client was extremely pleased with both the development and implementation plan/job aid and offered no suggestions for improvement.  Similarly, my peer was also complimentary, offering only suggestions for clarification in a few select areas of both documents.  Questions regarding instructor knowledge of program and related issues were ignored –as outlined in my Analysis, the instructor for this training is an expert in the program.  As such, training was successfully implemented and will be reported and reflected on in a future post.


Frakt, A. (2016, March 24). An ancient and proven way to improve memorization: Go ahead and try it. The New York Times.  Retrieved from

Murre, J. & Dros, J. (2015). Replication and analysis of ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. PLoS ONE, 10(7).  Retrieved from

Leaman, C. (2014, Feb 28). Improving learning transfer: Using brain science to drive successful learning transfer.  Training.  Retrieved from

Lebowitz, S. (2016, March 31). An ancient text over 2,000 years old may hold a key to remembering more than you thought possible. Business Insider. Retrieved from

Verhaeghan, P. & Marcoen, A. (1996). On the mechanisms of plasticity in young and older adults after instruction in the method of loci: Evidence for an amplification model.  Psychology and Aging, 11(1), 164-178.  Retrieved from

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