How can you prevent forgetting what you’ve learned? We give you 5 tips!

Eva de Cocq

‘It’s only Friday… and the test is Monday morning’, you think ‘there’s plenty of time to learn’. Fast forward to Sunday evening: you still haven’t touched your study material. You rapidly work your way through the study material until the early hours, and you seem to be able to manage the material. Monday morning has dawned, you start your test and to your surprise you seem to have forgotten about a great deal of the study material. Does this sound familiar? This phenomenon stimulated the curiosity of the German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus (1850-1909). He researched why and how people forget their knowledge. 

Learning process & learning curve

To understand how knowledge is forgotten, it’s important to first understand how knowledge is taught. ‘Learning’ is an important term with broad definitions. Studies on learning processes correspondingly have various points of view. A definition of learning is the change of the way of thinking, the perception, the behaviour and the feeling of people. Learning can also be defined as the inner consciousness of people, acquired by knowledges from studies. The most general definition, that’s also used in the rest of this blog, is however, the process of gaining knowledge. 

Learning processes can be illustrated by means of a learning curve. The quantity of the learned material is juxtaposed against the study time someone invests in learning about the subject. A steep learning curve can occur. This can be the case when someone doesn’t need to invest much time in learning an (easy) subject. This steep learning curve also appears when someone learns a lot of learning material in a short period of time, for example when you start learning on Sunday evening for a test on Monday morning. The steepness of the learning curve doesn’t point at the amount of learned material that will actual linger with a person. The time someone invests into the learning process is of great influence for the extent to which the knowledge will linger, according to Ebbinghaus. 

Steeplearningcurve1


The curve of forgetting of Ebbinghaus

Herman Ebbinghaus did a lot of research on the human brain and specifically on the human memory. He wrote several publications on the process of learning and forgetting. A noteable discovery of Ebbinghaus was that the speed with which people forget new knowledge depends on four factors: 

  1. The study time; 
  2. The difficulty;
  3. How tired someone is;
  4. How important the knowledge is for someone. 

Ebbinghaus portrays the process of forgetting in his curve of forgetting:

vergeetcurve-van-ebbinghaus

The curve of forgetting shows that the longer you learn, the less you forget. This results in an exponential relation. Your memory takes in the least in the first twenty minutes of you studying. In these twenty minutes you forget the most knowledge relatively. After approximately a day the curve flattens. After approximately a week of learning time, you forget minimal knowledge. A steep learning curve thus doesn’t mean that all learned knowledge will linger, according to the curve of forgetting. That’s why it can occur that you haven’t remembered everything the morning after a heavy study sessions. 

Tips for remembering knowledge longer

Ebbinghaus’s research also showed that the longer you repeat your study material, the better you’ll remember the knowledge. This ensures the exponential growth of the remembered knowledge. This brings us to five tips that should help you remember knowledge longer, according to Ebbinghaus’s theory:

  1. Repeat the study material regularly. You then move the knowledge from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. 
  2. Try not to study too long at once. Divide the material in smaller pieces and spread the study material over multiple learning sessions. 
  3. Take rest. Your memory works best when you’re rested.
  4. Use various ways to learn. Use for example images and read aloud, or make a mind-map.
  5. Try to make the material comprehendible. Make connections and think of possible mnemonics.

We all know of course that it’s wise not to procrastinate and postpone learning until the last moment. Still, we all secretly do this too often. The curve of forgetting of Ebbinghaus emphasises again that postponing and learning as much as possible the night before will not lead to the best results. Briefly: Start on time and make learning unforgettable!