Say No to Maintenance, Say Yes to Elaborative!

By Angelica Otto and Fatema Atshan

“Sorry, I can’t go out. I have a HUGE cognition exam, and I haven’t even started studying.”

“Well, when is it?”


I can imagine that we all have had this conversation at least once, maybe in high school or college. Maybe it was for a different subject, but the need to cram is the same. We have busy lives as future and current undergraduates.

Exams, Projects, Presentations, oh my!

I am not without faults. Some weeks, I strategically plan my studying schedule to be the utmost efficient, and other weeks, I don’t start studying for an exam until the day before. Being nearly half-way through my time at Marquette, I want to offer you, new undergrads, an insightful tip that will help maximize your studying results. Getting the information that you are learning into your long-term memory is the goal of studying. By getting it into your long-term memory through encoding and rehearsal, you will be able to much easier recall that information for your exam. Something that I have learned, is that there is a very significant difference between using maintenance and elaborative rehearsal when trying to get information that you are learning into your long-term memory.

Maintenance rehearsal is repetition of a stimulus that maintains information but does not transfer it into long term memory. Maintenance rehearsal is less effortful, resulting in shallower, more fragile, and more rapidly forgotten sensory traces. (1) While it can slightly increase the duration that the stimulus is in your short-term memory, this rehearsal is not an efficient way to study. I can think of many times in which I would sit inside my dorm room, and blankly stare into the distance, repeating things like…

“the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell…the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell…the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell…”

While this rehearsal may allow me remember this phrase for the next few seconds, as soon as my attention shifts to hear what was just said by Lord Disick on Keeping up with the Kardashians, I will forget what I just spent 5 minutes trying to remember.

“Repetition acts to enhance trace accessibility, whereas such factors as meaningfulness and depth of processing act to give greater coherence and integration to the trace” (2).

In other words, let’s not be naïve here- repeating a phrase 1,000 times can help lead you to remember the phrase, but in my opinion, that is too much effort. To get the information that you are trying so desperately to remember into your long-term memory EFFICIENTLY, you need to go beyond simply repeating the phrase.

That’s where ELABORATIVE rehearsal comes to the rescue!

Elaborative rehearsal involves using meanings and connections to help transfer a stimulus safely into the long-term memory. Elaborative rehearsal is like the Beyoncé of rehearsal techniques- it is by far, the absolute best! Elaborative rehearsal techniques can include things such as creating mnemonic devices, rhymes, drawing pictures and making connections between words you are learning and words you already know. “Elaborative processing increases the number of retrieval cues for any given memory. And since we often don’t know when or in what context we will need a given memory, having multiple and diverse retrieval cues is always better than having just one” (3). Even teachers and school professionals are taking into account the benefits of elaborative rehearsal. Teachers and experts are recognizing that effective lesson plans should “not only emphasize connections between aspects of a topic, but when possible incorporate context associations as well.” They include acronyms, mnemonic devices, and songs are strategies for helping students (of all ages) to create context associations in their memory (4).

“Biopsychology is a class that I struggle with. Simply repeating words over and over does not help me in that class. I need to make connections with what I’m learning in order to remember it. For example, when attempting to learn static and relative orientation in the brain, elaborative rehearsal helped me remember the terms on my exam (which I ended up doing very well on). I created a visual representation of the brain, and labeled it with the appropriate terms. Then, I used rhyming techniques to help create phrases that stuck out in my head. I remembered that rostral is the relative location near the nostril which is on the front of the head. Rostral = nostril is something that I will never forget thanks to deep processing of the elaborative rehearsal.”

There is a lot of empirical research supporting this tip that I am giving to you. Craik and Lockhart were researchers who developed the Levels of Processing Theory. The theory states that memory depends on the depth of processing that an individual gives to the stimulus. The researchers differentiate between shallow and deep processing. Shallow processing is like maintenance rehearsal, where little meaning is associated or the focus is on the physical features of the stimulus. Deep processing is like elaborative rehearsal, which is when close attention is paid to the meaning, and it is related to previous knowledge (5). Craik and Tulving conducted a study which asked participants three different types of questions. There was a physical feature, a rhyming portion, and a fill-in-the-blank question. Afterwards, they were given a memory task to see what they could remember. As you can probably predict, participants more easily remembered when the processing was deeper (6). In another study, which investigated maintenance and elaborative rehearsal in young and aging adults, differences became apparent. The type of rehearsal that they engaged in effected their scores. The elaborative rehearsal group’s mean total working memory scores were higher (1). Additionally, as stated in the article, those using elaborate rehearsal strategies had superior performances on reading comprehension tasks. These results showed that older adults can make effective use of elaboration to increase intentional memory (1). Another study stated that, “there is now good evidence to back up the notion that processing near the “pure maintenance” end of the continuum requires little capacity or effort, whereas greater elaboration requires greater expenditure of capacity (2).

Maybe you’re not concerned with whether this tip is empirically supported, but let me tell you, THIS WORKS!

In an ideal world, we would have all the time in the world to dedicate to our studying. Maybe you are good at effectively spacing out your studies and avoiding cramming. If you consider yourself one of those types of people, then this tip can still be relevant to you. It can cut down your studying time while allowing for deeper processing right off the bat.

College is hard. Learning to improve your studying habits can be a very hard thing, especially if you feel that your high school didn’t prepare you enough. By using this simple tip, your studying habits can become much more efficient, and will pay off longer in the long run.

SO PLEASE-DO NOT spend countless hours trying to simply repeat your 11 pages of notes. Use the mentioned technique to make your studying easier, effective, and even fun!


(1) Harris, J. L., & De Qualls, C. (2000). The association of elaborative or maintenance rehearsal with age, reading comprehension, and verbal working memory performance. Aphasiology, 14:5-6, 515-526 DOI: 10.1080/026870300401289

(2) Craik, F. I. M. (1979). Human Memory. Rev. Psychol, 30, 81-85

(3) Tigner, R. B. (1999). Putting Memory Research to Good Use: Hints from Cognitive Psychology, College Teaching, 47:4, 149-152, DOI: 10.1080/87567559909595807

(4) Andre-Knudsen, A. (2014). Eliminating the Tip of the Tongue. Journal on Best Teaching Practices, 1:2, 1-2

(5) Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and verbal behavior, 11, 671-684.

(6) Craik, F. I. M., & Tulving, Endel. (1973). Depth of Processing and the Retention of Words in Episodic Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 104:3, 268-294.


4 Replies to “Say No to Maintenance, Say Yes to Elaborative!”

  1. I enjoyed this blog very much. The use of real life examples and a bit of humor was very creative and helpful for the reading. This blog was very informative and engaging. The use of originality of the photos and videos were very unique! The topic is very significant and I am sure freshman and current college students found this very helpful. I know I sure did.
    Great Job girls!

  2. I really like how you began this blog post with an example of a scenario that I’m sure nearly every student has experienced at some point throughout their lives; this was a great way to start the post because it makes the topic seem a lot more relatable! It was also really nice how you put the main terms in bold font in order to make them stand out more to the reader, and I liked your video example of maintenance rehearsal—it was simple enough for everyone to understand, but it still got the point across.

    Your transition from maintenance to elaborative rehearsal was great! It explained exactly why elaborative rehearsal is needed. I’ve also found the elaborative rehearsal works much better for me than maintenance rehearsal, so your research and claim definitely seem spot on—I wish I would have known this as an incoming freshman!

    Overall, this was a really great post! Your explanations were all very clear, and the multimedia introduced helpful examples on the topic. Great job!

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