THE CURVE OF FORGETTING
How memory works is not a big mystery. We can easily remember the ideas, items,
and information that we turn our attention to often, and we can quickly
forget the ideas, items, and information that we “touch” only once or
twice. This natural forgetfulness of
information we touch only once or twice is a quality of a healthy mind--after
all, why store information we tell our minds we won’t need? So the point is simple: We tell our
memories what’s important to store by how many times we practice retrieving
the information. The more times we
practice—the more times we touch the information--the more permanently the
information will be stored. Before we
continue, let’s look at how scientists think memory works: 100 Billion Neurons.
The Curve of Forgetting graph below (originally
called The Ebbinghuas Curve after
the German philosopher Hermann Ebbinghaus who developed it in 1885)
demonstrates how quickly we forget new information we don’t work with
repeatedly. Here’s what the graph
demonstrates: Assume that we hear ten new terms in class on Monday. Our immediate recall, Point A of the graph,
is 100%--we can repeat the terms and definitions at the point where we first
However, if we do not repeatedly return our
attention to these terms and definitions, we will forget about 40% over the
first 24 hours (Point B). If we wait
another 24 hours before reviewing the information, we have lost 60% (Point
C). So we can go from a grade of ‘A’
(100%) to ‘D’ (60%), to ‘F’ (40%) in just 48 hours.
THE CURVE OF FORGETTING
100 A: The moment we first hear new information
R 60 B:
One day later without reinforcement
T 40 C:
Two days later without reinforcement
D 0 1 2 7
TIME IN DAYS
This is the deception of temporary memory: When we first hear something, because we
can immediately think about it and repeat it, we assume we will remember it
from then on. However, what has really
happened is that our brains have attached a drop of temporary memory “glue”
to the information. (There really is a
scientific name for the chemicals that bind the memory).
In a short time, this drop of temporary “glue”
loses its bond and we forget the information.
But if we continually return our mind’s attention to this information,
if we continually add more drops of “glue,” eventually the information will
become part of more permanent memory.
We add new drops of “glue” by first getting to the
new information as soon as we can after we first hear or read it. Then occasionally but continually we review
the material, often quizzing ourselves on it.
Our study goal is to “touch” the information often, in little review
sessions, with a bit of time in between sessions.
General Keys to Effective Study
Ñ1 Remember that the
purpose of all studying is to keep The Curve of Forgetting from affecting
your recall and ability to use what you have learned.
Ñ2 The more times you touch
new information, the less The Curve of Forgetting will affect it. Eventually, if you touch the new
information enough times, it will become part of your permanent memory. Your name and phone number are good
examples of this.
Ñ3 Always study in
Question/Answer format. In other
words, whether you are reading a textbook chapter or going over your lecture
notes, you should always be looking for an answer to a question you have
created to focus your attention. In
addition, the question/answer format is precisely the format of a test. Studying in this format means that you
immediately begin learning the information in the way a test will ask
it. Remember--it is possible to learn
the right information in the wrong way and fail a test.
Ñ4 Create and use
FLASHCARDS whenever possible: Put any
information you can on flashcards--term or question on the front of the card
with the definition or answer on the back.
Remember to put only one term, question, idea, or list on a card. Flashcards automatically show you
information in question/answer format.
In addition, flashcards are very portable--you can take them with you
everywhere and use those 5 to 10 minute free periods in each day to quiz
Ñ5 The very best way
(perhaps the only way) to learn anything well is to trickle it in to your
mind in little bites or brief intervals over a period of time.
Keep in mind that this method is the opposite of
cramming where you try to absorb large amounts of information in one or two
long sessions. Cramming is the least
effective study method because The Curve of Forgetting will immediately begin
to erase the information from your memory.
Consider what might happen if you cram information you will need to
know for a job or for the next level of a course.
The “Trickle-in Method”
Here is how to use the Trickle-in Method”: Assume that you have a 25-term vocabulary
test facing you on Friday, so you begin to “trickle in” the information on
Monday or Tuesday, not the night before the test. You put each vocabulary word on a separate
3-by-5 card with its definition on the back.
You carry these cards in your pocket or purse. You go through the cards and quiz yourself
on the ten-minute bus ride in the morning.
That same day before lunch, you quiz yourself again. Five minutes before your favorite soap or
Oprah starts, you look at the cards again.
While supper is cooking, you give yourself another quiz. Just before you go to bed, you quiz
yourself once more.
Time spent to do this: four or five 10-minute periods. If you continue to do this each day, you
will do very well on the test Friday, and you will not have missed the time
you used to study. You have touched
the information several times in little bites (you have “trickled in” the
information) and will have fairly permanent knowledge of this material. This is good news for the final, too,
because the information has a good chance of staying in your mind the rest of
A FEW MORE HINTS
1. Try to
study in the same place as much as possible.
Humans tend to get “conditioned” to doing a certain activity in a
certain place. Studying in the same
location allows us to get to work much sooner.
scheduling classes and study periods when you are most alert. For example, if you are a "morning
person," try to organize your schedule accordingly.
In addition, if your life
allows, schedule one-hour breaks between your classes (for example, schedule
your classes at 8:30, 10:30, and 12:30, so that you have breaks at 9:30 and
11:30). These one-hour breaks allow
time to “review and preview”: Review what you just heard in the lecture and
preview what the next class will cover.
3. Have a
study plan and study according to priorities.
Decide beforehand how you will
divide your study sessions and use a “to-do” list to organize your time.
4. Break long study
periods into shorter segments—20 to 30 minutes and then change subjects or
activities. Return to a previous
subject or activity later if you need more time for it.
Remember—“trickle in” the information--little bites in question/answer
6. Keep a
calendar of upcoming tests and assignments--begin trickling in the
information well before the date, using flashcards when possible.
7. Your grade
on a test or in a course is not determined by how many hours you spend
studying but by how much quality study time you spend. Study smart--remember--you can waste hours
and hours studying improperly.
8. Do whatever
it takes and do not give up. If this
were easy, everybody would have a degree or certificate.
The Big Six
Items on the
Great Study Skills Questions
Where will the
test questions come from?
Lectures/Lecture Notes? Other?
What kind of test
will it be?
Objective (multiple choice, true-false, etc.) or Essay?