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If you’ve ever watched a video on a new topic, only to wake up the next morning and not remember any of the details you just learnt, you’ve fallen victim to the forgetting curve.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is a psychological model linked to memory and how we forget things over time. Here’s what you need to know about the forgetting curve, plus strategies to combat the forgetting curve – for both learners and educators.

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What is the forgetting curve in psychology?

The Forgetting Curve – aka the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve – is a graphical model that shows how we forget information over time. The curve maps how our memory declines –  as more time passes, the percentage of information we retain reduces.

Understanding the Hermann Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve takes its name from Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who systematically studied memory and learning in the 19th century. Here’s what you need to know.

Who was Hermann Ebbinghaus and why was he important?

It’s hard to overstate the influence of Hermann Ebbinghaus on experimental psychology. Building on the work of a German philosopher named Herbart, Ebbinghaus was one of the first researchers to tackle experiments on the shape of forgetting and he conducted a series of thorough and detailed experiments, which he eventually completed and published between 1880-1885.

Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve is based on 7 months of experimenting on himself – sometimes for up to 3 sessions each day. Ebbinghaus carried out his original research on himself, first using numbers, tones, and poem stanzas to test his own memory and patterns of forgetting. 

But he quickly realized that these materials weren’t right for his experiments as they contained too much variability. Instead, Ebbinghaus settled on using nonsense syllables – like “Zof”, “Qax”, and “Wid” – these had more uniform characteristics than existing poems, words, and other verbal material. 

The introduction of nonsense syllables was one of the first to use controlled, artificial stimuli in psychology and a wide range of experimental psychology experiments borrowed from his methods.

Later Ebbinghaus tested his results using verses from Don Juan by Byron which confirmed his original results, but also resulted in a wider variance in the data compared to the nonsense syllables. Numerous experimental psychologists have replicated Ebbinhaus’ forgetting experiments – and generated similar results.

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How does the forgetting curve work?

The forgetting curve maps the decline of memory retention over time – and the curve shows how information is lost over time. But there are 6 more aspects of memory and forgetting that also play a role:

  1. The changing rate of forgetting

The forgetting curve is exponential – it drops steeply as the amount of retained knowledge drops as soon as we acquire new information. 

In fact, most forgetting happens within the first hour of learning. We typically only remember around 75% of information at the end of a lecture. And within a couple of days, you’ve forgotten as much as 75% of what you learnt.

The rate of forgetting levels off after this point, so memory declines at a slower pace. That means you’ll only be able to remember a few key details from the lecture after a couple of days – but you’ll usually be able to remember those things for several days.

  1. The importance of meaningfulness and prior knowledge

When it comes to retaining information, prior knowledge has a big role to play in how likely we are to remember something. If you can link new learning content to something you’ve learnt before, it’s easier to remember.

Meaningfulness also impacts memory – when information has meaning, you’re more likely to remember it. For example, you can remember directions for how to get to your friend’s house easier than remembering the content of the video you watched the same day because of the importance of that information. The directions have more meaning, so your memory is more likely to hold onto it.

The same goes for topics that you’re interested in or that are relevant to you – looking at case studies or listening to people you identify with, for example, can be more effective than reading a regular text book.

Things that don’t have meaning – like nonsense syllables – fit the forgetting curve closest, whereas topics that both have meaning and where you have prior knowledge are more likely to stick.

  1. How information is presented

The way something is communicated can also impact how easy it is to remember. Simplicity is critical here. It’s easier to remember information that’s presented in a simple, straightforward way with plenty of visual aids like diagrams and infographics – compared to a block of featureless text.

  1. The influence of complexity

The rate of forgetting is influenced by the complexity of the material you’re trying to learn too. Complex material is generally harder to remember. That’s because our working memory can only focus on a small number of things at a time – and when it hits the limit, it discards information and that complex material is lost.

  1. Individual variations in memory

The forgetting curve is generally the same for everyone and the basic rate of forgetting doesn’t vary much between individuals – but some people do have better memory than others. That means you can expect to see differences within a class of learners between who remembers what information and how much they remember.

As well as variations in prior knowledge and the meaningfulness of the content – which we know impacts the forgetting curve – there are also other factors that come into play.

Some factors that influence memory include:

  • Age
  • Environment
  • Genetics
  • Concentration
  • Emotions

While the forgetting curve is a general model that applies to all learners, there are small individual variations that impact how much you can remember compared to your peers.

  1. Physiological and psychological factors

Physiological factors also have a critical role to play in memory retention – for example, lack of sleep significantly impacts your ability to learn and retain information. Hunger and nutrition can also impact memory processing.

Then there’s the influence of psychological factors. Stress and anxiety can negatively affect your ability to store and retain information. This is important for learners as stress and anxiety can often lead to a vicious cycle – learners feel stressed, which makes it harder for them to retain information, which leads to more stress, and the cycle continues.

Forgetting curve example

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve looks like this – with the percentage of information retained on one axis and the elapsed time on the other axis.

You can see the rate of change on the graph with most information being lost within the first hour before leveling off as more time passes.

The science behind the forgetting curve

The human brain has an incredible ability to acquire, store, and recall information we learn through our lifetimes. Memory is an active process – we have to use effort to rebuild memories and recall concepts, ideas, and information that we’ve learnt across decades.

While forgetting has long been seen as a negative aspect of memory, scientists now believe that forgetting may be a functional feature of the brain – as it allows our brains to interact dynamically with the environment. While forgetting can be annoying, forgetting some memories can be beneficial as it leads to more flexible behavior and better decision-making.

Research now suggests that forgetting is due to changing memory access, rather than memory loss and decay. The information is still stored in the brain, but you can’t access it anymore.

The good news? There are strategies you can use to help you remember what you’ve learnt – and make the learning process more fun.

10 methods to fight the forgetting curve

While you can’t avoid the forgetting curve completely, here are 10 strategies you can use to improve knowledge retention and reduce the impact of the forgetting curve.

  1. Used spaced repetition

The forgetting curve shows how information is forgotten over time if it isn’t reviewed or revisited. But Ebbinghaus also found that information is easier to recall when it’s reinforced – that means you need to revise the content after you’ve learnt it.

One of the top methods to improve memory is to review learning material at spaced intervals. Instead of trying to cram all the information in at once, repeat the learning multiple times after the initial lesson. This strategy helps to increase memory retention and keep the information fresh in your mind.

Check out the graph below to see how it works.

For educators: To use this method in practice, make sure that you provide learners with follow-up activities to help them review the information they covered in the original lesson. Try using short refresher videos, quizzes, and flashcards.

For learners: Set yourself a schedule to review the information you’ve learnt – including immediately after the learning period, and then for the next 3 days afterwards. Try setting reminders on your phone to help you remember when it’s time to do a repetition exercise.

  1. Practice active learning

You can boost your knowledge retention by practicing active learning – that means actively engaging with the material you’re learning rather than passively watching or listening by taking notes, summarizing key points, sketching pictures and more.

Actively processing information as you learn it helps to reinforce the memory process. To help this process, educators can use fun activities like asking learners to share their real-time reactions to videos or lesson content, either using a messenger app, chat function, or live tweeting using a class-specific hashtag. This helps learners engage with the content, identify trends, and evaluate other learners’ points of view as they go.

For educators: To encourage active learning, set active tasks for learners – like taking 5 minutes to explain the material they’ve just learnt to a partner or taking a quick quiz.

For learners: Make sure you’re engaging with learning material by taking notes, summarizing what you’ve covered, and writing or making voice notes about the topic in your own words.

  1. Break content into chunks

If you want to learn and retain knowledge of complex topics, break it down into manageable chunks. The chunking method helps to improve memory – while also making learning content more fun!

The aim with content chunking is to divide learning content into smaller, bite-sized bits of information that can be easily understood, learnt, and remembered. Chunking also helps to make the learning process more engaging and dynamic.

For educators: Chunking content starts with you – take lessons and modules and trim them down into shorter, quicker modules, no longer than 20 minutes long to make sure you hold your learners’ attention. Check out microlearning techniques for more ideas!

For learners: If you’re faced with a big topic to learn, practice chunking by breaking the content down into smaller bits – write your notes in chunks too, picking out the most essential information as bullets, lists, and single sentences to make it easier to remember.

  1. Test memory with retrieval games

To help improve your recall, use retrieval activities to encourage your brain to access information from your memory – rather than simply re-reading or re-watching the learning content. 

Testing yourself on the material you’ve learnt from memory helps to reinforce your knowledge, while also giving you the satisfaction of seeing how much you can remember! Make it fun with quizzes or games rather than regular tests.

For educators: To help learners with memory retrieval, set regular closed-book practice tests and quizzes that cover the learning materials for every topic. Use a tool like Kahoot! to make collaborative quizzes online.

For learners: Try using the copy-cover-and-check method to test yourself as you’re learning – cover up your notes and attempt to recall the information, then check how you did. You can also use flashcards as a memory retrieval tool too.

  1. Take advantage of visual aids

One of the most effective methods to help you store information in your long-term memory is to pair concepts with images and visuals. Visuals can help you make sense of content – if you can hook an idea to an image, you can increase the chance that it will be stored into your long-term memory and that you’ll remember it down the line.

Visual aids can include:

  • Diagrams
  • Charts
  • Infographics
  • Mind maps

For educators: Use visuals throughout your learning content to help concepts and ideas stick in your learners’ minds – encourage learners to try ‘sketchnoting’ where they sketch a quick picture of what they’ve learnt rather than taking traditional written notes to help learners visualize their understanding.

For learners: Look for graphics and diagrams to help reinforce what you’ve learnt, or make your own! Make sure they’re as clear and as simple as possible for best results. If you’re a visual learner, try to find video-based learning content to help you absorb information.

  1. Try a multisensory approach to learning

If you want something to stick in your mind, take a novel approach to learning by making the process multisensory. Those 5 senses activities aren’t just for kindergarteners – learners of all ages can benefit from activities that engage the senses, like touch, smell, and taste. 

Some ideas include:

  • Hands-on science experiments
  • Field trips and in-person activities
  • Role playing
  • Dances and hand movements
  • Themed board games

For educators: Develop learning content with multisensory activities in mind – even if your learners are remote, you can encourage multisensory learning by setting tasks and activities that encourage them to get up from their desk and engage with the learning content. Try matching hand movements and dances to key concepts to make them easier to remember.

For learners: Try using multisensory stimuli like taste, smell and sounds to help you learn information. In fact, certain smells may help memory and concentration – including lavender and rosemary essential oils. 

  1. Mix it up with Interleaving

Interleaving is an effective strategy to enhance long-term memory retention, as well as improving problem-solving skills. The Interleaving technique involves mixing – or interleaving – two or more topics while learning.

Rather than focussing on just one concept, educators can use interleaving to improve memory by switching back and forth between two or more concepts or topics. Teach one concept, spend time explaining it, then move onto another concept before revisiting the original concept later.

Interleaving promotes comparison and contrast, which can increase learners’ understanding of a topic and their knowledge retention.

For educators: Use interleaving to add context to certain topics or concepts e.g. interleaving the histories of different countries based on a common theme. Avoid interleaving topics that are too similar or too different so you don’t risk confusing learners.

For learners: When it comes to self-study, use interleaving to spread topics and concepts through your study sessions, rather than learning everything about one topic in one block. This can help you remember and retain the information for longer.

  1. Schedule spaced practice

When it comes to memory, when you learn can be just as important as what you learn. 

Instead of trying to cram learning content, the most effective method for your memory is to space out learning over multiple sessions – known as spaced practice. Schedule spaced learning activities over time, such as 1 hour every day leading up to a test, rather than a single 8-hour session.

If you can spread your learning across multiple days or weeks, you can improve memory retention and reduce the likelihood of you forgetting the content. It also means there’s less pressure on you to learn everything you need to know by cramming. Every session gives you the chance to go back over what you’ve learnt in previous sessions, review the material, and enhance your understanding of the topic or concept.

For educators: Add activities into your learning content that encourage learners to revisit previous topics – such as creating a worksheet with picture prompts to help learners remember and explain key concepts from memory.

For learners: To take advantage of this method, plan your spaced learning schedule in advance so you know what you need to be reviewing every day. This can help you feel more in control and reduce stress – especially before a test or exam.

  1. Incorporate teach and explain activities

Boost knowledge retention with activities that encourage learners to try teaching the material to others or imagine explaining it to someone else. Teaching helps to solidify learners’ own understanding of the content, while also strengthening memory recall.

For example, the Jigsaw method divides learners into groups – and each person in the group is given a different topic to explore. After having time for knowledge refresh and further research, learners regroup with learners from other groups who were exploring the same idea to confirm their understanding. Then the original groups come back together and each learner teaches the topic to their original group.

For educators: Use learning communities to encourage more social learning activities to boost knowledge retention even in remote learning contexts, including ‘teach and explain’ activities like presentations and explanations.

For learners: Try to find a study buddy to do different teach and explain activities together – you can do them remotely via live video calls or record yourself explaining concepts and send them to your study partner or online learning community.

  1. Apply the knowledge in real life

Use real-world examples to improve knowledge retention by finding practical scenarios and real-life problems and debates that related to the learning content. If you can embed learning in specific, meaningful contexts, you’re more likely to form stronger memory connections that are easier to recall down the line.

For educators: Include activities that encourage learners to apply their knowledge to real-life scenarios and examples, such as debating a viral topic in your industry or field. Either pair students one-on-one or start a whole-class discussion.

For learners: Research real-life case studies of the concepts you’ve learnt to see how they’re applied in practice – when it comes to recalling the information, you’re more likely to remember it if you’ve linked the knowledge to a concrete place, problem, or group of people.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve in remote learning

For Creator Educators, understanding the forgetting curve is essential to help you create and rollout content that boosts knowledge retention. As your learning content is unlikely to be delivered in-person, you need to find strategies to help you reinforce learning through remote activities and assignments that activates your learners’ knowledge and sparks their imaginations.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Use microlearning concepts: Microlearning is now a top technique for Creator Educators thanks to its bite-sized approach to learning that’s ideal for engaging learners and chunking complex topics to limit the forgetting curve. Try using microlearning techniques like short videos, quizzes, and audio clips to engage learners.
  • Utilize social media: While it can be hard to compete against the huge quantity of learning content on social media, if you can encourage learners to use social media to reinforce their learning over time then you can work to reduce the forgetting curve – think themed hashtags, discussion threads, and short videos to help them revise key concepts.
  • Generate group discussions: If you have a dedicated online community space, use group discussions to encourage learners to recall and revisit critical learning topics and concepts, while also boosting social learning opportunities by encouraging more interaction and engagement within your group.
  • Try digital flashcards: Digital flashcards help learners to reinforce their learning on-the-go, without the need for a partner or physical classroom setting. Create flashcards for your content or encourage learners to make their own.
  • Use case studies: Case studies are a really effective method to help improve understanding and knowledge retention in learners, wherever they’re working from. Encourage learners to find case studies that are relevant or interesting to them to help make the content more meaningful, personal, and interactive.

Don’t get caught out by the forgetting curve

Both educators and learners can benefit from understanding the forgetting curve – and taking active steps to reduce the effects of forgetting. Though every learner will experience Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve in some way or another, with the right learning strategies you can improve knowledge retention and long-term memory for better results.

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