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How Can We Overcome the Forgetting Curve?

In the field of psychology, the term Forgetting Curve is the ability of the brain to retain information and how it decreases over time. 

Hermann Ebbinghaus was the first to study the behavior of forgetting scientifically. He performed tests on himself over various time periods, then analyzed the data to find the exact “shape” of the Forgetting Curve. His findings were published in 1885 in the book (title translated from German) “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology.”

If you were given a list of nonsense three letter words right now, how long do you think you would remember them? How long could you remember at least half of them?

That was his exact experiment, and his results are widely accepted. His graph, Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, presents his formula for how long items remain in our memory. Some people may remember better than others, but the general trend for how long we retain information is the same.

How Quickly We Forget

According to Ebbinghaus, the level at which we retain information depends on a couple of things: the strength of your memory and the amount of time that’s passed since learning.

Following is a plot of a typical forgetting curve formula. As you can see, it is exponential. The first days of memory loss are greatest and, as time passes, it is much slower.

forgetting curve

The speed at which we forget depends on a variety of factors:

  • The difficulty of the learned material
  • How easy it is to relate the information with facts, which are already known
  • Quality of memory representation
  • The conditions under which the material is learned
  • Whether the student fully rested or stressed

How Can More Be Retained?

Two primary factors affect our level of retention for items in our long-term memory: repetition and the quality of memory representation.

Repetition is easy enough–the more frequently we repeat something, the more likely it is to stick.  For this reason, one suggestion for students to improve memory retention is to review their notes and classwork regularly.  Research has shown that reviewing at regular intervals does increase retention and that, over time, the less frequent review is needed.

Below is how the graph looks if you review what you learn once after two weeks, or twice – after two weeks, and then after a month:

forgetting curve

The takeaway from the graph above is this: regular review can help retention, but over time, we still tend to forget what we’ve learned.  This is why reviewing and cramming for exams can provide dividends in the short term–only to lead to you forgetting everything quickly learned/memorized immediately after.

There is a caveat though. One aspect that can increase retention (and that is not accounted for in the graph above) is that vague phrase mentioned previously– the quality of memory representation.  There’s also some debate about how much retention is affected based on how meaningful the information is.

Quality of Memory Representation and Meaning

A better approach for long-term retention is to focus on the quality of the information represented in memory and the meaning of the information to you. In other words, the more relevant, meaningful connections made with the new information with things you already know, the better the memory retention over time.  

If you learn something, and it is important to you, and you can connect it with many things you already know, your memory retention will be very high. Below is a quote from a writer, Scott Young, discussing how instead of trying to memorize and squeezing all the information in your brain, people need to connect their previous knowledge with new information. In this way, people are more likely to retain new knowledge in the long run. 

Instead of trying to pound information into your brain with the hopes it will simply fall out when you need it, holistic learning is the process of weaving the knowledge you are learning into everything you already understand.

Scott Young, Learn More, Study Less

So how can we create long-term retention through more meaningful connections? The short answer is that rather than trying to memorize everything (referred to as the rote method of learning), we need to relate what we learn and draw connections.

Happy grading,

Mark Espinola
CEO + Founder of GradeHub