Whatever you do in your life, you usually expect to get specific results. When you draw, you create a painting. When you cut your hair, you achieve a new hairstyle. When you learn something, you gain new knowledge. Or do you?
The thing is, the learning process is not as predictable in terms of results as other types of activities. You can spend hours studying new material before exams and then find yourself remembering only a small part of what you’ve learned. It’s a shame, isn’t it?
But why does it happen? Why can’t new dates, names, key facts, and other important pieces of information be securely stored in our brains after a single glimpse? To answer this question, let’s introduce ourselves to Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve.
Explaining Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve
Back in the 1880s, a curious German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus was asking himself the exact same question: Why do we forget things?
Trying to get the answer, he started a series of experiments with his memory. Ebbinghaus attempted to memorize various forms of nonsensical data and subsequently tested his recall at different time intervals. He observed that as time passed, the percentage of newly acquired knowledge he could retain decreased.
Using this data, he formulated an equation that resulted in a graphical representation we now know as the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.
This graph clearly illustrates the relationship between the percentage of forgotten material and the elapsed time. As time passes, our memory gradually diminishes.
While it demonstrates how quickly we forget things, it doesn’t explain why this phenomenon occurs. So, let’s try to figure this out.
What Affects Our Ability to Remember?
First of all, let’s begin with the fact that our brains have a natural tendency to forget things. Only a small portion of our knowledge can be readily retrieved when needed, while the majority is stored deep within and is challenging to recall on demand.
However there are aspects that can impact our retention rates. When we aim to learn something and retain it for an extended period, we should consider the following factors that directly influence our ability to learn and recall information.
Complexity and the meaningfulness of the material
For example, it can be challenging to remember a series of medical abbreviations (such as APTT, CMHN, FBC) or chemical elements that have no significance to you. At the same time, it can be easier to remember more meaningful information, such as the length of a river or water boiling temperature.
The formatting of the material
When the material is well-structured and logically organized, your retention rate can be significantly higher. That’s why it is recommended to group various facts or numbers into subtopics and include graphs or images whenever possible to facilitate easier retention.
Prior knowledge and context
It’s always easier to build upon existing knowledge. When you’re introduced to a completely new concept, it can be challenging to grasp. However, if you expand your existing knowledge (for example, by learning 10 additional math formulas on top of the 100 you already know), your brain can absorb new information more easily.
Your Psychological State
How do you feel, how much did you sleep last night, and whether you are relaxed or anxious – all these factors have a substantial influence on your effectiveness and ability to learn things. Sometimes we can’t control these factors, but we shouldn’t wonder why can’t we pass an exam after a sleepless night and being worried about the iron we forgot to switch off 🙂
Your Individual Learning Abilities
While the forgetting curve works largely the same for everyone, a person’s individual capacity to memorize various types of data can vary slightly. For instance, some of us excel at learning foreign languages, allowing us to remember unfamiliar words more confidently. Others may be inclined to recall historical dates, facts, physical equations, chemical elements, and more.
As we can see, our brain is not an ideal device for retaining information, and the effectiveness of our learning can depend on various conditions. However, this also means that we can address all these factors individually and enhance our chances of remembering things confidently.
Simple Steps to Avoid Forgetting
Keep Your Brain Fresh
First of all, let’s start with yourself. Since you are going to fill your brain with a lot of new material, we need to ensure that it is fresh enough and ready to accept it.
Everyone has their own productivity periods: some of us prefer studying in the morning, while others are more comfortable in the evenings. It’s important to know when your brain is most prone to effective learning and to utilize these valuable time periods with purpose.
Another vital aspect is getting a good night’s sleep. Without proper sleep, our bodies and brains are unable to function effectively. You won’t be able to achieve personal sports records or recall information confidently after a sleepless night. Your goal should be to get between 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep (not simply lying in bed and scrolling through news feeds :).
Finally, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re about to start a learning session but feel that your mind is overwhelmed with various thoughts and worries, try to perform a mental ‘reset.’ Engage in a short 10-minute meditation or breathing practice, take a few laps around your house, or have a cup of coffee to boost your productivity.
Remember: if your brain isn’t fresh and prepared to work effectively, you’ll have a hard time retaining information during your learning session.
Make Material Easy to Remember
Now, let’s move to the material you are going to learn. As we mentioned above, the format and meaningfulness of the material have a significant impact on your ability to remember it.
First, avoid learning everything at once. If your material is extensive, divide it into logical parts and distribute it across several learning sessions. While this approach may require more time, it will result in a higher retention rate.
Next, write down the key facts, dates, numbers, and names, and learn them separately. Sometimes, it can be helpful to reformat this data into the form of a data table, with columns like ‘Date’, ‘Event’, ‘Comments’, or ‘Abbreviation’, ‘Meaning’, ‘Use cases’. While the data itself stays the same, such a visual representation makes it easier for our brain to remember.
Additionally, make use of complimentary diagrams, graphs, and images whenever possible. Our brains are good at retaining visual data, so combining textual and graphical representations will enhance your retention rate.
Go Extra Mile
If the material is challenging to grasp through reading alone, you can go even further and make an extra effort. There are several tricks that can help our brains absorb new information more effectively:
- After reading the material, manually jot down the key data: names, numbers, dates, etc., as discussed above. It’s a well-known fact that handwriting activates additional neural connections in our brains, which aids in remembering the material with greater confidence.
- Try to verbally explain the material you’ve learned as if you were teaching it to a friend. When you explain complex concepts to someone else, your brain processes new knowledge from different angles, which further enhances retention.
- Create flashcards with questions and answers using the key data you wrote down in the first step. For instance, this could be a set of cards featuring important historical dates, chemical elements, or common abbreviations. We will discuss this in more detail below.
No matter which specific technique you use, every additional effort you put into remembering new material will benefit you and aid in mastering your new knowledge.
However, there’s one more crucial aspect we should discuss: the regular revision of the material to counteract the ‘forgetting curve’ effect.
Repeat What You’ve Learned
When it comes to remembering the numerous data we see, hear, or feel in our everyday lives, our brain functions as an extremely complex sorting machine. It operates autonomously, determining what information should be stored for future use and what can be skipped to save its “disk space” 🙂
The problem is that our brain lacks ‘Settings,’ and we can’t directly instruct it to remember specific information we know is crucial. So, we have to abide by our brain’s rules if we want to ensure we remember something, and the name of the game is “repetition”.
As we learned from Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve, we tend to forget new information soon after encountering it for the first time. The more time passes, the less we can recall. However, if we consistently review new material, we prevent our brains from discarding it. We are essentially telling our brains, “Hey, let’s store this information because I really need it”.
The cool thing is that you don’t have to review the material every single day. The more you repeat it, the less frequently you need to do so to remember it. What’s even better is that there are various learning techniques that can turn sporadic repetition into a structured system with precise learning schedules. Let’s explore some of these techniques.
Forgetting Curve and Learning Techniques
At the core of various learning techniques and algorithms lies the spaced repetition system. The fundamental concept is that you review newly learned material at specific time intervals, which makes it less likely for you to forget.
Time intervals may slightly vary from one system to another, along with their approach to managing the materials you learn.
Leitner System is one of the most popular realizations of the spaced repetitions principle. It was developed in Germany in the 1970s by Sebastian Leitner.
According to the Leitner System, the material you learn is written on flashcards and distributed between several boxes, according to the level of confidence. The system has its specific learning schedule, so you always know what cards should you review and when. You can read more about the Leitner System here.
If you don’t want to use physical cards and boxes like it was in the 1970s, you can utilize desktop or mobile applications built upon this system, for example, Leitner Box Flashcards.
Another popular technique is SuperMemo, developed in Poland by Piotr Woźniak. This system is also based on the spaced repetitions concept and employs various algorithms to facilitate the recall of new material, adjusting the approach according to its level of difficulty.
SuperMemo has been implemented in desktop and mobile applications, allowing convenient use without the need for physical cards and boxes.
Anki is a well-known software for learning new material through spaced repetitions. It is based on SuperMemo algorithms and enables users to create virtual decks and flashcards.
Like other applications that employ the spaced repetition concept, it has its own learning schedule and helps you review learning material precisely when needed to prevent forgetting.
Taking into account the variety of learning techniques and their implementations, the forgetting curve has no chance of ruining your learning process. Just choose the application you prefer, and the amazing results won’t let you wait.
Understanding the core mechanisms of our brain is crucial for effective learning. Instead of attempting to force new material into our memory and hoping not to forget it, we can utilize smart techniques and leverage the brain’s natural ability to store information almost effortlessly.
By using the Leitner System and other methods, we can not only save a significant amount of time but also make our study process more relaxed and enjoyable. At the same time, modern software enables us to conduct study sessions almost anywhere we are, without being tied to a specific place. So, forget about the ‘forgetting curve,’ and good luck!