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Information not sticking? Fight the forgetting curve.

Why does our memory seem so faulty?

I’ve pulled more than a few late nights in college finishing papers or cramming for a final, and unfortunately don’t have a detailed memory of the Roman Empire or 1900s poetry. What I do remember is the legality of recording conversations in Utah and strategies to write compelling stories because I used those in my journalism career. Little did I know at the time, my experience was not just common, but actually a real phenomenon studied and named in the 1800s–the forgetting curve.

The famous forgetting curve describes how quickly and easily information is lost if it’s learned quickly, in one big piece and never reinforced. This is also known as the way far too many college students pass their classes. So why does our memory seem so faulty? It’s because our brains actually use forgetting as a necessary tool to avoid information overload. People don’t need to remember most things. Many of the things we do are short-term or infrequent tasks, or we can remind ourselves by writing lists or making how-to plans, and our brains quickly forget those things to free up power to remember important items.

So if forgetting can be a good thing, how do you prevent it when the information you’re learning is critical? The best way to increase retention is to spread out new information over multiple sessions, so the brain isn’t getting inundated with all new things. Then make sure to reinforce and remind people of the things they need to know.

What is the forgetting curve? 

Exponential, progressive loss of learning over time, first studied by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. When learning isn’t reinforced, information is quickly lost, eventually leveling off to retaining only a small fraction of what was learned. 

What affects retention? 

While many factors influence memory, these are some of the most common:

  • Time
  • Prior knowledge 
  • Stress
  • Difficulty 
  • Amount of material
  • Sleep
  • Relevance
  • Repetition

Forgetting has a purpose. It’s how your brain avoids information overload and helps you prioritize. To boost retention, people need to practice or study beyond the initial point of learning. Doing so helps information, skills or behavior become ingrained.

This strategy is called overlearning. Multiple reinforcements signal to the brain that the information is important. Without reinforcement, each hour of materials requires 40-50 minutes of relearning. 

How to help:

  • Provide context
  • Spread out new information 
  • Separate need to know from nice to know
  • Create memory aids
  • Use multiple reviews

How do you help your learners retain key information and support memory? Reach out to discuss your next learning project.