Making memories…it is all in the timing

Rethinking learning

At times we think of learning as a process of adding new information to our existing memories, but pay less attention to retaining what is already there.
This can be a problem because as humans, it is normal for us to forget what we learn and so we need to develop strategies to ensure the time and effort we invest in learning is not wasted due to the unavoidable fact that we forget the majority of what we learn if it is not reinforced in some way.

It doesn’t matter who we are, we all learn a significant amount every day and by spending just a few minutes, we can retain much more of that and save ourselves lots of time and effort in the long run.

Retaining existing knowledge

In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted experiments on himself to better understand the factors that contribute to humans forgetting information.
He found that we forget around 70% of what we learn once, within the first 24 hours after learning and continue to forget, albeit at a declining rate, as time goes by. This research has been repeated many times since with very similar findings.
This relationship is illustrated by the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (diagram 1).

Diagram 1: The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Retrieve to revive

The best way to combat the forgetting curve is to complete tasks that require us to retrieve information that was learned, before it is forgotten. This effectively resets the curve each time we retrieve information and reduces the speed at which we forget.
This relationship is illustrated in diagram 2.

Diagram 2: The effect of retrieval on forgetting

Repeat to retain

To retain memories over a longer-term, we need to retrieve our memories and repeat this retrieval practice several times. Each time we do this, we retain more and consequently forget at a slower rate. This means we can allow more time between our retrieval activities.

Timing our retrieval practices

The timing of retrieval practices is not an exact science and will vary between individuals, however, what is important is that it is completed at a point where significant forgetting has occurred, but not to the degree that the learner is starting afresh.
Given that the highest degree of forgetting occurs within the first 24 hours of learning, it is most important that the first retrieval practice occurs within the first day. This can be as simple as talking about it with someone or reflecting on what was learned and recording the key points. Recording what we learn also creates a handy reference point when we need to recall what was learned at a later date.
There is also strong evidence of the importance of sleep in embedding memories which would indicate that there is significant value in completing retrieval practice prior to sleep on the first day.

Diagram 3: The effect of repeated retrieval forgetting

The danger of letting time pass

When we allow time to pass between learning and retrieval, we not only increase the effort required to relearn what was previously learned but we also limit our capacity to learn new information. This is because we rely on what we already know to link new information to it. This is why it is so important to retrieve what we have learned early and often and why leaving revision to the last minute should be avoided as makes learning harder for ourselves.

Diagram 4: The effect of delaying retrieval and forgetting

Choosing retrieval practices

If we were to plan out each of these retrieval practices on a calendar, we would quickly become overwhelmed by the thought of how much time we might need to allocate. The good news is, we often retrieve information as we learn and it is highly likely we are retrieving information as we apply what we have learned to new situations.
The most efficient way to stay on top of retrieval practice is by reflecting on what we have learned and checking in to ensure we are applying it to new situations before it is forgotten. This not only reduces the time and effort required for learning, it also aids transferability of knowledge, which is arguably the true purpose of learning in the first place.

Making retrieval practice easier and more enjoyable

The best way to ensure retrieval practice becomes part of learning is to make the practice easier and more enjoyable. There are a range of ways to do this and the make memory cards have been designed to provide simple instructions for a variety of learning techniques that can support retrieval practice. Having many options available provides the opportunity for learners to choose those they enjoy, encourages variety to reduce boredom and provides novelty for the brain which is also known to boost learning.

These cards can be used by:

  • individuals to select their own preferred activities
  • groups to select activities to work on together
  • parents and carers to discuss and plan activities with their kids
  • teachers and educators to allow students to work individually or in groups to choose their own retrieval activities
  • anyone wanting to retain more of what they learn each day.

By using these cards, we can choose how we learn reducing our reliance on others to support our learning.

Keeping track

The Learn More by Forgetting Less worksheet may be a helpful tool to assist with recording learning on the day it was learned, before going to sleep and can be a great reference when planning future retrieval practice.

Click here to download The Retrieve to Retain fillable worksheet that can be used by anyone

Click here to download the Learn more by forgetting less – 5 period day fillable worksheet that was designed specifically for students

Click here to download the Learn more by forgetting less – 6 period day fillable worksheet  that was also designed specifically for students


Further reading