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Why Learners Forget, and How You Can Change This

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Why Learners Forget, and How You Can Change This


Teachers have always known that routine memorisation leads to shallow or base understanding of the subject matter, making its contents quickly forgotten by the learner. However, there has been new neuroscience studies that have shed light on how our brains are wired to forget. This stresses just how vital it is that we create strategies to help learners retain information.

In an article published by Neuron, neurobiologists challenge the current view of memory. This view states that forgetting as a process of “loss,” i.e.: the gradual fading away of valuable information.

The neurobiologists of the Neuron article define the goal of memory as the need to optimise decision making in a continuously evolving and chaotic environment. In this cognition model, forgetting is considered an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that evaluates and discards information that does not contribute to the survival of a species.

The article explained that, “From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory. Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”

The Forgetting Curve

We consider memory as a library, with books of data filed away and then accessed when required. Memory is more like a spider’s web, that is: strands of memory distributed through millions of linked neurons. Think about it like this, when a teacher gives a new lesson to a learner, the subject matter is encoded through the abovementioned neural networks, translating the experience into a memory.

In the 1880s, psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneered research in the field of learning and retention. He observed what he called “the forgetting curve.” This is a measure of how much we forget over time. Through his experiments and studies, he found that without reinforcement or connection to previous knowledge, data is quickly discarded and forgotten. Roughly 56% is forgotten in an hour, 66% after 24 hours, and 75% after 6 days.


So, what can we do to preserve our teaching?

Reinforce Learning

The same neural electrical system is involved in forgetting and remembering. This means that teachers and students can create strategies to reduce the loss of memory and reinforce learning.

Richard Cho, MIT neuroscientist, explains that when neurons are regularly fired, synaptic connections are made stronger. Neurons that are rarely fired have the opposite effect, making synaptic connections weaker. This explains why certain memories stick and others are discarded. By repeatedly retrieving stored information, we reawaken or revive the neural network that holds memory, encoding it more strongly.

It is important the remember that not all recent memories are created in the same way. For example, look at the below set of letters:

  • For English speakers, the second set of letters is much more memorable. This is because there are more connections to other neurons with these letters, thus, the memory is made stronger. The letters “GHJKL” appear completely random. CHAIR comes from other linguistic memories, making it more memorable, invoking sensory memories of a chair sitting in your home or at your desk. Your memory works by layering new memories on older memories.

    3 Strategies for Teachers

    When a student learns new information, they make a new synaptic connection. There are 2 scientific ways to assist them in retaining the information, based on helping them make as many connections to the new information as possible.

    The below learning strategies that are effective for this:

  • Student to Student Explanations:
  • When students relay what they have learned to other students, their fading memory is reactivated and made stronger. This strategy will increase retention and encourage active, engaging learning.

  • Frequent Practice Tests
  • Providing learners with frequent practice tests boosts long-term retention, and also helps reduce their stress levels. Your practice tests can be ungraded, such as a quiz or trivia quiz at the beginning of a lesson.

  • The Spacing Effect
  • Rather than covering a topic and swiftly moving on, revisit the primary ideas taught on that topic throughout the year. Research indicates that learners perform better when provided with multiple opportunities to review material.

    As Ebbinghaus’s research demonstrates, forgetting begins as soon as learning happens. However, there are effective and simple ways to help ensure that learning sticks!

    Some courses Masterskill Offers in terms of the above:

    AXO84-027SG Concentration! First Edition
    CCT-019-S Making Your Message Memorable, First Edition
    CCT-025-S Wake Up Your Creative Genius, First Edition
    CCT-045-S Developing Instructional Design, First Edition
    CCT-114-S Managing Stress for Mental Fitness, Revised Edition
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