Encoding occurs when information is translated into a form that can be processed mentally. Information from the environment is constantly reaching your senses in the forms of stimuli. Encoding allows you to change the stimuli so that you may put it into your memory. It is similar to librarians classifying books before placing them on a shelf. As librarians encode/label books so patrons to easily locate them, you encode/label information before placing the information into your memory.
When information comes into your sensory memory, it needs to be changed into a form that can be stored. There are three main ways in which information can be encoded/changed:
Visual: Information is represented as a picture
Acoustic: Information is represented as sounds
Semantic: Information is represented by its meaning to you
When you are exposed to information through your senses, you take the information and begin processing it in visual, acoustic, and/or semantic form. This means that you take in information, either as a picture, a sound, or give the information meaning. For example, if you look at a telephone number on a piece of paper, you are using visual. If you say the number out loud, you are acoustically encoding. If you notice that some of the digits sequentially represent a special date, you give that number meaning and thus semantically encoding.
Visual encoding is the process involving images and visual sensory information. This means you convert new information into mental pictures. For example, if you try to remember the following list of words which words to you think you will remember easier?
You would probably find it easier to remember the words apple, house, and cup. It would probably be more difficult to recall the words hope, respect, and value. This is because you can recall the mental images more easily than words themselves. When you read the word apple, you probably pictured an apple in your mind. However, when you read the more abstract words like hope, you probably had a harder time creating a mental image.
Also, if you are presented a list of words, each shown for one second, you would be able to remember if there was a word in a different color, or if a word was written in all capital letters or in italics by visually encoding.
Acoustic encoding is the process of remembering something that you hear. You may use acoustic by putting a sound to words or creating a song or rhythm. Learning the alphabet or multiplication tables can be an example of acoustic. If you say something out loud or read aloud, you are using acoustic. An example of memory recall from acoustic is if you are listening to the radio and a song that you have not heard for a long time comes on, and you find yourself remember all the words. This is because the words were acoustically encoded. We encode the sounds the words make.
Semantic encoding is the processing of sensory input that has particular meaning or can be applied to a context. Semantic requires linking new information to existing knowledge in order to make the new information more meaningful. Information that is encoded semantically is better remembered than those encoded visually or acoustically because semantic involves a deeper level of processing than visual or acoustic encoding. The quality of remembering or retrieving information later is directly linked to the degree with which new information can be connected or assimilated with existing knowledge.