The Forgetting Curve—and Changing its Shape

The Forgetting Curve—and Changing its Shape

Forgetting curve is described as the decline of memory retention over time. Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory, in 1885, coined the term Forgetting Curve, for explaining the exponential loss of information one has learned over time¹.

Forgetting curve is quite relevant for students. On day 1, at the beginning of the lecture, students start at baseline or 0%, and by the end of the lecture, they know 100%. However, with continuous bombardment of newer information, the memory starts to register a new stimulus, losing the learnings accumulated just a little while ago. With the sharpest decay in the first twenty minutes, the decline is substantial through the first hour. The curve levels off after about one day. By day 2, students ‘forget’ 50-80% of learnings if they do nothing (revision or application of lecture). By day 30, they retain less than 5% of the original lecture! As a result, when students start preparations for the exams, the feeling as if they have never seen the topic before is quite common.

Forgetting Curve and Changing its Shape
 

The Curve of Forgetting²
 

But the great news is that you can change the shape of the curve! After all, the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. Hence, if you tell your mind to retain the information, it will start to reiteration, your mind starts to retain information, each time taking less and less time to commit learnings to long-term memory—making it easier to retrieve information as needed.

So, what is the magic routine for reviewing your learnings that will commit them to your long-term memory? T+1, T+7, and T+30! It means, within one day of your class lecture, take ~15 minutes to review the material, raising the learning curve to ~100%. Within a week, reviewing the same material requires ~10 minutes, and the curve goes back to 100%. By the end of the month or day 30, you will need ~5 minutes for the confident voice from within to scream, “Hey, I remember that…”

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Sometimes, you may feel that this routine is arduous, and with so many competing priorities sticking to it an uphill battle. However, this routine is an excellent investment of time—less than 30 minutes of review on spread over thirty days, commits learnings to the long-term memory. But, if you skip the review, the learning must start from scratch, often resulting in last-minute cramming. Such cramming can perhaps help in the exams but hardly makes it to the long-term memory or contributes towards learning, resulting in a shaky foundation.

Students who have committed to this routine have reported greater understanding, deeper learning, and higher retention of the material taught. Give this method a shot; it might just transform your learning experience—and life!


¹T.L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. “Unit 7: Memory.” pp. 126

²https://uwaterloo.ca/campus-wellness/curve-forgetting

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