Discover the science behind forgetting and conquer it

By the time you've finished your next cup of coffee, you'll forget nearly half of what you just learned. But, the good news is there are simple steps you can take to improve your memory.

Unless you have a photographic memory, you likely find it hard to remember everything you learn, even an hour or two after you learn it. Why? Research about how we remember and forget gives us a clue. 

19th century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus created the “Forgetting Curve” after studying how quickly he learned, then forgot, a series of three-letter trigrams. Here’s what he discovered: 

Our brains are hardwired to recall important facts. The process that determines what you remember and what you forget makes recalling every single detail nearly impossible. 

In the century since Ebbinghaus discovered the Forgetting Curve, scientists have suggested several things you can do to reverse its effects: 

It was Ebbinghaus who first identified the phenomenon of spaced repetition for improving memory. Since then, numerous studies have affirmed its powerful effects. 

Here’s how to use spaced repetition to improve your learning: 

Within a few hours of first learning something new, read your notes, adding thoughts or summaries of the notes every few lines. If you don’t have notes, reread the text or, if you’re learning online vs. a classroom, re-watch portions of the course, taking notes this time. 

While it may be tempting to repeat the process as soon as you can, an important part of spaced repetition is the spacing. The first review should be quick. Each subsequent review should take place at a longer interval than the previous one. 

Review everything you’ve learned, not just what you’ve forgotten. For example, if you learned a new skill from online training, watch the course again, adding to your notes to make them more complete. 

Testing your memory improves retention by 20-50%. If your learning platform offers assessments or quizzes, take them to test your memory and make note of what you’ve missed for further review.

The next review should take place 3-5 days later. Then review again roughly 6-10 days after that. Add another test for better retention. After 5-6 reviews at longer intervals, what you’ve learned will be a permanent part of your memory. 

Sources:

“New e-Learning Measurements: The Challenges and Advantages 

Facing Your Business”, Larry Israelite, PhD, Pluralsight Webinar, 2015. 

“Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology”, Hermann 

Ebbinghaus, 1885. 

“Forgetting”, Saul McLeod, Simply Psychology, 2008. 

“The Psychology and Neuroscience of Forgetting”, John T. Wixted, 

Annual Reviews, November 3, 2003.