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Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve actually teaches us about retention

Chapter 6 Strategies for enhancing retention and recall


Hermann Ebbinghaus Share this expert HE Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer of systematic psychological research and was one of the first to study higher mental processes in an experimental laboratory setting. Some of his methods would not pass muster today, mainly because his best-known experiment was limited to a single participant (himself). Ebbinghaus studied memory by tracking his ability to learn and recall nonsense syllables (e.g. LUK, ZIM, BOQ) under varying conditions. He used nonsense syllables because he found that meaningful words were easier to remember and feared that familiarity could bias his results. Ebbinghaus showed that he required less time to re-learn a topic on subsequent memorization attempts, but that the time saving gradually leveled off. Ebbinghaus’ experiments led to the concept of a forgetting curve . Ebbinghaus did not use the term. His curve showed retention rather than forgetting.

Ebbinghaus' Retention Experiments - The Forgetting Curve

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Ebbinghaus’ experiments are often interpreted as proof that there is an inexorable process of forgetting that occurs over time. But Ebbinghaus’ results cannot be generalized to other types of learning. Not only were they based on only one person, but by choosing to use nonsense syllables in his study, Ebbinghaus avoided many factors that influence retention. Taking a closer look at those factors provides useful clues about how to improve retention and retrieval .

  • Characteristics of the learner
    • Prior knowledge
    • Motivation of the learner
    • Metacognitive awareness
  • Characteristics of the material being learned including
    • Type
    • Complexity
    • Coherence
    • Meaning (vs. nonsense)
  • Context of the learning event
    • Learning strategies used
    • Recall cues
    • Frequency of retrieval
    • Time between learning, repetition and testing
    • The difficulty of the retention test

Learners can apply learning strategies that take advantage of these factors to improve their performance. Research has shown that retrieval practice enhances the retention of memories. Retrieval should feel challenging to achieve the best results, so retrieval attempts should be appropriately spaced and allow for some interference and forgetting to occur. Feedback plays a role in the effectiveness of retention practice, as it enables learners to identify weak spots and improve. Meaning is an important factor in how memorable material is. If learners can find a way to deepen their understanding of a topic, linking it to what they already know and make it relevant to their lives, then they will be more likely to remember it later.

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