June 8, 2020

Forgetting to remember


You’ve probably learnt something new only to forget it the next day. This was first theorised in the ‘forgetting curve’ by the father of memory research, Hermann Ebbinghaus. His studies in the 1880s showed that you will forget an average of 70% of new information after 24 hours. Modern research has replicated his studies since, strengthening the ‘curve’ theory. Sadly, we actually forget a surprising amount.

In the classroom, a student understands everything in the moment of the lesson and answers all questions correct. The truth is that teachers should expect their students to have forgotten most of what they have learnt by the next day. Although information recall is a seemingly obvious learning method, it is too often overlooked by educators and forced to the bottom of the pile. Topics students had ‘covered’ are thrown to one side and left untouched until study leave. Of course with the huge amount of content to get through for GCSE and A-Level, constant recall can pose as a challenge for students due to time restraints and increased focus on exam skills. So how can educators tackle the problem of forgetting?

The most obvious way is through ‘elaborative encoding’ where essentially you make the content more memorable for students. Engaging lessons, and pupil participation are key in creating lessons the students won’t forget. However, making a lesson outstanding isn’t enough. You need active and spaced repetition. A simple analogy to this is brushing your teeth: you could have the best technique and do it once but see no improvement in tooth decay. If you do it little and often, you’ll see better results. ‘Spaced-repetition’ like brushing your teeth twice daily, is a strategy which allows teachers to return to a topic repeatedly over time to allow long-term memories to be consolidated. This is essentially the opposite of ‘cramming’, brushing your teeth well but once only, where memories are lost the next day.

Linking is key: effective spaced-retrieval practice takes place when students are exposed to both new and old information. This can be explored countlessly in encouraging a student to think laterally in linking different events and processes. In Spanish lessons I introduce new vocabulary using previously covered grammar, and I mix new grammar with vocabulary they had covered two topics ago. Students remember information by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones. Have a look at this example where there are two sets of letters to remember:



Without a second thought, ORANGES is clearly more memorable. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context which has been returned to consistently in both the language you’ve encountered as well as in sensory experience.

In the same way, in teaching you can create ‘hooks’ by introducing new information in linking it to previous knowledge. You can activate this by asking them, ‘where else have you seen this before?’ When students recognise patterns in language, or similar factors causing processes and events, successful learning can take place

We recall information in our everyday lives when we tell a story to a friend, and we tend to remember further parts of the story as we go along. Your memory of a fact or an emotional experience is strengthened when it returned to through conversation. Likewise, from my own

teaching, the most effective retrieval practice is actually through conversations I have with students, where learners are encouraged to constantly recall their learning out loud. A one-to-one space, or peer-to-peer discussion is ideal, where tutoring also lends itself perfectly for this. Students can also take this learning outside of the school setting, sitting down with friends and family and talking through revision is an underrated recall strategy, so I encourage parents to do this as much as possible.

Quizzes of recall at the start of each lesson are a great way to consolidate long-term memory, together with combining new information with previously learnt material. Of course technology can also lend a helping hand. Spaced repetition resources include virtual flashcard desks (a great App to use is Anki). This app allows you to review each deck once (chosen topic), and then combine all other topics together to form one big deck. When you review this, you’ll have to switch between very different areas of knowledge, which will help your memories become more flexible and give you practice in recalling knowledge in different contexts.

Sometimes, as teachers we need to remember that forgetting is part of the process. It is through active recall, spaced repetition, and making links between topics where true long-term memories can be made.