Remember how many people prepare for exams at school or university: they take their textbooks a couple of days before the exam and try to “swallow” a tremendous amount of information. After the coveted grade is obtained, only the most diligent students a week later can reproduce at least a couple of topics in the course. In a few months, even they are unlikely to remember anything.

Herman Ebbinghaus’ theory of the forgetting curve explains this process of learning loss. Essay writing service decided to find out what it is and whether the German scientist’s concept can be used to help people (such as your students) to learn well.

What is the Forgetting Curve, and is This Theory Valid?

German scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus formulated the concept of the forgetting curve at the end of the 19th century in his monograph “On Memory” (the original German title is Über das Gedächtnis). To evaluate the possibilities of human memory, the author conducted experiments both on himself and his students. Participants in the experiments memorized meaningless syllables using various memory techniques, and Ebbinghaus timed and observed how quickly the subjects forgot this new information.

After 20 minutes of memorization, he found that students remembered only 60 percent of the syllables, after nine hours, 40 percent, and after a month, just over 20 percent. This relationship is called the Ebbinghaus curve. 

 You can see that the most significant loss of information occurs almost immediately after memorization (40% are lost, 60 remain). Without consolidation and repetition, we cannot retain knowledge even for a relatively short time.

In addition, the scientist compared the results of his experiments on memorizing meaningless syllables with learning a coherent text of equal length – “Don Giovanni” by Byron. It turned out that the poem was forgotten slower than the set of syllables, but the curve looked the same: as time went by, one still managed to reproduce much less of the learned material.

Should we now trust the results of experiments conducted more than a century ago? After all, not all of their details are well documented, so it is difficult to assess the reliability of the conclusions now. There have been cases (such as Dale’s pyramid) in which the theories of scientists of the past have come down to us with distorted meanings, but many practitioners continue to rely on them. 

The validity of Ebbinghaus’s conclusions has been confirmed by contemporary research. In a 2015 paper, Dutch scientists Jaap Murr and Jori Dros reproduced the experiment and obtained a scheme very similar to Ebbinghaus’s concept. In conclusion, the researchers mentioned the German scientist’s innovation: in 1880, he already based his findings on mathematics and statistics and set new standards for conducting psychological experiments. 

Why Forgetting is Actually Useful

The human brain is capable of many things, but its ability to store and recall specific information is limited. Forgetting is a beneficial quality of the human mind. As an analogy, a computer works: if its memory is taken up by too much data, it starts working more slowly until you free up the disk. The brain does this “self-cleaning” automatically, removing “unnecessary” information from memory. So forgetting can be considered a kind of hygiene.

But there is one unpleasant problem. Sometimes we can not remember the critical information that is useful to keep in mind, such as learned topics. 

Here it should be mentioned that a person has an operative (working) and long-term memory. The first is quite limited in volume, and the mind operates with it to perform specific tasks. It was the same situation when a student was cramming for exams, and after passing them, he forgot almost all he had learned. Information has to get into the long-term memory for information to be retained.

How to Remember Information Long Term

Not only did Ebbinghaus draw a curve for forgetting, but he also identified some factors that affect our memory. It is possible to structure the presentation of information so that students learn the material more effectively by taking them into account.

1. Make the information meaningful for the listeners

If you carefully structure the material students need to learn so that it is clear, meaningful, and logically structured, it will be much easier for them to remember.

Make associations between your subject matter and what students already know, putting the theory you are studying in context. This can be popular culture or everyday life, and in the case of teaching adults, the task is even easier: they already have a wealth of knowledge and experience of their own to draw upon. Try to explain complex concepts with simple examples. 

2. Consider the importance of repetition

Simple repetition can combat the rapid removal of new information from memory. The best time to start repeating what you’ve learned is as early as 20 minutes after you’ve been exposed to the report. If we look at the forgetting curve, we see that this is when the line drops sharply in the beginning.

Yes, information will be partially lost after each session, but forgetting will be slower. This memorization technique consists of repeating the material after certain, ever-increasing time intervals: for example, after 20 minutes, then after one hour, then after three hours, one day, three days, a week, and so on.

Testing the hypothesis of the usefulness of interval repetition within cognitive psychology began in the seventies of the last century. Thomas Landauer and Robert Bjork gathered a group of psychology students and tested how well they remembered the connection between “a person’s picture + his name. The hypothesis was confirmed: a gradual increase in the intervals allowed the experiment participants to retain information for a long time.

It is essential to understand that this technique is usually studied to remember facts, words, or formulas. How well it works in learning more complex information requiring reflection is not yet clear.

3. Give students extra exercises

There is a term “overlearning,” which describes the process of practicing a skill even after one has already honed it to the max. For example, if you’ve been practicing three-point shots for an hour on the basketball court, an extra 15 minutes will allow you to better master that skill. 

It has been well researched how “overtraining” helps train motor and visual skills. In terms of information assimilation, this phenomenon has not been widely studied. Still, scientists suggest that, for example, mastering foreign languages or remembering facts works even better because higher cognitive functions are involved. Therefore, it would not be superfluous to allocate more time for exercises to consolidate the material learned.