It seems like common sense that the longer you go without retrieving a memory, the harder it is to retrieve—but it wasn’t always one of those things we simply knew to be true. In the 1880s, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus studied the phenomenon and published his findings, giving the world the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. The curve is a simple graphic demonstrating how information is lost over time, but it proved that time-related forgetting is real (and has been reaffirmed by further study since). Want to fight the curve and hold on to your memories, especially when you’re studying? Here’s how.
How long do memories last?
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Ebbinghaus concluded that how quickly we forget something depends on factors like how difficult or meaningful the material was, but also how tired or stressed we are, so there’s no clear-cut answer to the question of how many days you’ll hold on to a piece of information if you don’t think about it.
We also know that the order in which information is presented matters a lot when it comes to how long we store it in our short-term memory, so there are quite a few factors that go into our ability for memory retrieval and retention. To master them, Ebbinghaus and today’s educators agree on at least two approaches.
Beat the forgetting curve with spaced repetition
The first strategy you can use to better retain information is called spaced repetition, an evidence-based technique that helps learners absorb numerous pieces of information and store them in their memory.
Basically, you need to study the material multiple times, giving yourself space between each review. The amount of time you go without studying the material depends largely on how well you’re already remembering it. Reviewing your class notes for a difficult class should be done more frequently than reviewing the notes for a class where you really get the concepts, for instance. Instead of subjectively deciding if you’re retaining the information and need to review it or not, try using the Leitner system, which helps you schedule your studying based on whether or not you answered a particular flashcard correctly the last time you went through it.
Beat the forgetting curve with engaged learning
Teaching resources recommend that educators use methods to make lessons more engaging to help kids beat the forgetting curve, but you can apply that same idea to your own individual studying. When you’re reading new information, for instance, use techniques that help you stay absorbed in the material.
Try examining new info through the lens of Kolb’s learning cycle, for instance, which relies on the belief that you need to have concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation to really learn something. Or use a critical-thinking method, like SQ3R, to track your progress on a topic. With SQ3R, you’ll write down a little of what you can gather from a review of the material, then questions you want to answer when you give it a more thorough read, so you’ll stay engaged as you go, searching for the answers to your questions. The technique also calls for you to review your notes periodically, which fits right in with the spaced repetition and will help you overcome the forgetting curve.